An ongoing cycle of lectures on themes related to the archaeological site of Çatalhöyük by Ian Hodder in Oxford has prompted me to write some reflections about it. In particular the intertwining of themes such as sedentarization, origins of agriculture and symbolism point to a momentous period of human history, when relatively small changes in the life of people affected the development of all following cultures. Professor Hodder will be known by most archaeologists as the current director of the excavations at Çatalhöyük, an extraordinary site for its dimensions and state of preservation that was founded about 7400 BC. In a talk on the symbolism of the first farmers the focus was on two archaeological sites: the aforementioned Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe, a recently discovered site where megalithic structures interpreted as temples (they seem connected with religious beliefs). The interesting fact to note is that there was a general understanding among archaeologists that agriculture prompted sedentarization and the formation of proto-urban communities. According to this view (Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza 1984) farming and sedentarization are linked and the diffusion of one meant the diffusion of the other. In a previous post I mentioned the antiquity of the domestication of plants in the Near East setting it at about 9500 BC; Tell Abu Hureira is also a site worth remembering on this topic and just to round up the various perspectives, readers may be interested also on the recent monographs by Bogaard (2004) and Barker (2009) largely founded on archaeoenvironmental research. However, at Göbekli Tepe, in existence already about 9000 BC, only wild resources appear to have been consumed by the ancient community. As a result, we have to face the fact that hunter-gatherers opted for sedentarization without the stimulus offered by farming or the domestication of wild resources.
Göbekli Tepe is a very interesting site where several megaliths have been found with carved imagery. Among the depictions (see this page for some pictures) are frequent wild animals, especially some in threatening postures; snakes; spiders; scorpions; birds (associated with headless man); etc. The site has been barely investigated and no conclusions can be made on other aspects of life there. Çatalhöyük instead is a conglomerate of dwellings where the dead were buried a few centimetres underneath the houses and walking areas on the roofs. Here different animals were represented, such as the frequent bull; cattle; leopards; horns; etc. No defences such as encircling walls have been found and both sites are located in fairly remote areas, at least considering other contemporary sites in Anatolia. There is also no evidence of warfare or violent deaths among the copious amounts of human bones from Çatalhöyük. At both sites representations of human figures are exceedingly rare. So-called mother-goddess figurines have the genitalia clearly marked, but genitalia appear also in depictions of animals and especially the penis is frequently depicted. Although the representation of genitalia at the dawn of art makes the headlines in the mass media, it was a very common topic in prehistory; phalli (representations of erected male genitalia) are frequently found in the Mediterranean area until the end of the Bronze Age. They are often “hidden” and not properly reported, but they are there. There are no representations of anything domesticated or that could be interpreted as more usual, less wild. Domestication took place at these sites, and the effects can be seen for example at Çatalhöyük, where some domesticated plants were present from the early period. Of course this changed relationship with the environment affected the society, but if we are to look at the representations only, nothing was going on. Even suggesting that the representations of genitalia are connected with fertility and therefore domestication of plants and animals would stretch the archaeological evidence. In short, the world represented and imagined by the people in early Neolithic Anatolia was one of wilderness, where the genitalia eventually insist on the wild and natural theme rather than anything else.
So we have a world where human beings are separating themselves from the wilderness and constructing an artificial and domesticated environment, the early nucleus of stable and larger communities rather than temporary accampments, and yet it seems that they were dreaming of what was left. Hodder interprets this as evidence of a conceptualised violence that helped the communities in achieving an impressive peacefulness and stability (these communities show little change in a thousand years; at least at Çatalhöyük there is little evidence of change or stresses until 6000 BC; the society was also very egalitarian without significant differences across the gender divide or among individuals). It seems that the passage from foraging to agriculture may have been opportunistic, essentially a new technology offering something that was deemed as more convenient than what was available then, and it was therefore embraced. However, it was not the only, or even the primary reason for the establishment of settled communities. Actually, the need for forming a community might have created the right conditions for the spread of agriculture, which helped in sustaining such communities, which could not have been stable or peaceful for so long without an adequate supply of natural resources, especially food. Hodder stresses also the constant presence of death at least at Çatalhöyük, where the bodies of the ancestors buried inside the houses so close to the surface must have provoked a constant stench (perhaps using the roofs of Çatalhöyük was to some extent a necessity). Yet, we might be interpreting the presence of the rotting corpses as death to correlate it with the violence expressed by the symbolic representations when the ancestors might be seen a benign link between the people and the land they reside on. We should not forget that it was a very new relationship, earlier human communities wandered across lands, never resided permanently on a patch of land.
To conclude, of all themes that we can recognise in the archaeological record (namely violence, death, sex and domestication) as very relevant to these particular societies, only violence/wilderness really stands out (sex at the very least is not a major theme specifically in these communities), but it was a theme important enough to dominate the symbolic world and be almost excluded from the world of that people. Hodder wisely avoids presenting definitive conclusions, given that he will have to provide more data from his excavations. I have been very much interested by the topic of rituals and symbolism in Neolithic and later societies myself, and I would like to propose a possible solution, while awaiting further discoveries at the sites. Could it be that those ancient human beings decided to live together in order to confront the perceived threats posed by wilderness? Ancient Greek writer Aesop already recognised that “united we stand, divided we fall”, and it is possible that the threatening wilderness in the representations is exactly what people perceived to exist. For that to happen, human beings must perceive themselves as fully separated by the animal and natural world, perhaps dependent upon nature but not part of it. It seems like a cognitive development of the mind, which cannot see humankind as equal to any other animal, extending the differentiation between the self and the rest to humans and the rest. This perception that the natural world was no longer the right place for humans to live in, and actually it had become an hazard, may have prompted those societies to reclaim a patch of land from nature for themselves, and represented those animals partly to remember themselves what the community would face if this did not happen, and partly to express the intention/hope that such threats stay away from the community. Stable human societies already existed; the new element being introduced was the sedentarization on land. To me, the symbolic theme of “violence” suggests that the natural world was being perceived as something separated from humankind, and often a threat; “violence” may be a wrong term as much as “death” in relation to the ancestors and “sex” in relation to representations of genitalia.
Ammerman, A.J. and L.L. Cavalli-Sforza (1984) The Neolithic Transition and the Genetics of Populations in Europe. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bogaard, A. (2004) Neolithic Farming in Central Europe. London: Routledge.
Barker, G. (2009) The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.