Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Classless society is heritage of all humans

A classless society is possible: Anatolia's history tells us so

Sandra Bloodworth
26 March 2010
A recreation of a female body holding a male plastered skull which  illustrates the "central female presence in lines of  affiliation"

A recreation of a female body holding a male plastered skull which illustrates the "central female presence in lines of affiliation"

“Continuously inhabited for 1400 years between 7,400 and 6,000 BC, Çatalhöyük, while illuminating the history of mankind, its art and way of life, also raises numerous questions.

“Forget everything you know about civilization: places, tools, relationships, diseases, what you eat and drink, your beliefs… In fact, put aside everything you have ever learned about the history of civilization. For Çatalhöyük is going to open up entirely different doors for you. In the history here, art flows not alongside life but right through it. There is no hierarchy, no war, no male-female strife…

“At Çatalhöyük there was no hierarchy, for there are no spaces here where administrative decisions could have been taken, or areas where such decisions could have been announced to the people, or indeed any streets to bring them to such places.

“…there are no signs of a ruling class that ate more or better than the others. … [men and women’s] teeth are worn down in the same way, and the time men and women spent in the house and the tasks they performed were almost exactly the same: they made tools, ground wheat, kneaded bread, and prepared to lead a family.

“…these findings heralded the existence of equality between the sexes. Among the skulls that were passed down ceremonially from generation to generation, or, more precisely, from house to house, there are those of both men and women, indicating that both sexes could be ‘head’ of their family or line.”

This is the publicity blurb by Turkish airlines in 2006 advertising tours to an exhibition in Istanbul about this amazing place, Çatalhöyük, in what is now south-eastern Turkey. It is a reasonable summary of what is known of this settlement in the Neolithic era, which in Anatolia stretches from the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 to 6,000 BC.

And it is of particular interest to Marxists because the idea that humans could live in a classless society has always been dismissed as a fantasy by right wingers and is even doubted by many left-wing people.

The history of Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük was settled some time before 7,000 BC. Probably about 3,000 to 8,000 lived there at any one time.

Archaeologists find the cultural artefacts in this place absolutely inspiring and fascinating. The symbolism, the graphic images, the obvious continuation of traditions which were recreated and nourished, generation to generation, for about 1,400 years is a tribute to the creative potential of humans, and also to the possibility of a stable, classless society based on urban living.

There are no depictions of aggression, or of disciplinary tribunals such as class societies display. The art is backed up by examination of skeletons which shows that no-one died from violence.

What appear to be religious rituals happen, not in special buildings set apart from where people live, as they had in the earlier, hierarchical societies in Anatolia, but in every household. Which is why the remains are so rich in elaborate and inspiring art work; it is everywhere and it must have dominated people’s every activity.

Apart from the evidence of how religious rituals were practised, the architecture indicates a society with no inequality in living standards. Every person has about the same amount of living space, and with complicated re-arrangements of storage and burial areas, larger families use their houses differently to ensure that with the same floor plan and structure, they end up with the same space per person.

They buried their houses regularly (about every 30-80 years), but then built on top of the filled foundations. Ian Hodder, an archaeologist who has worked on the excavation of this site since 1994, commented that we can interpret this as destructive, or we can see it as a determination to preserve and honour ancestors and traditions. The presence of dead bodies buried in the walls and under floors must have imposed their presence as part of everyday life and consciousness.

It’s not clear why, but the houses were clustered together with entry via the roof using a ladder, so lots of socialising and communal cooperation had to take place on the roofs. Just think about carting animals and food, disposing of human waste, coming and going with material for making stone tools and the rest, all across each other’s roofs.

Ian Hodder concluded, after a decade working on the site:

“In terms of size, we might call this settlement a ‘town’. But it has few of the other characteristics that we might mean by that term. Despite careful sampling of the surface of the mound, we have not found public spaces, administrative buildings, elite quarters, or really any specialised functional spaces except those on the edge of the mound (such as lime-burning) and animal penning…

“…all there is at Çatalhöyük are houses middens and pens…

“…it pushed the idea of an egalitarian village to its extreme…

“It is as much a ritual centre as a centre of production. These various functions are integrated in the house and, as a result, there is no large-scale zoning of the town into functional areas.”

This is significant because when Marx and Engels wrote, and until recently, we tended to think of classless societies as only existing among small bands of nomads. Çatalhöyük was settled in the aftermath of a crisis and possibly social revolution which overthrew emerging elites in Neolithic settlements in the east of Anatolia which had evolved into hierarchical societies. The evidence clearly shows that there was an urban, stable, classless society.

The position of women

Marx and Engels argued that before the division of society into classes, women were not oppressed. This is still a controversial question because both right wingers and many feminists do not accept that women and men were ever equals.

With the benefit of new theoretical interpretations and advances in science in DNA testing and more detailed analysis of fragments of information retrieved from the layers of earth, Ian Hodder drew some conclusions about Çatalhöyük. Take a plastered male skull (a common practice) held by a female skeleton which excavators found in the wall of one of the houses. Taking into account the context and much other evidence, Hodder concludes that it tells us a lot about “the ways in which people…made specific links between the present and past ancestors…in some way showing ancestry and links through time”.

He concluded that this find indicates there was a “central female presence…in lines of affiliation stretching through time”.

But some of the strongest scientific evidence about the relative status of women and men is their diet, so Hodder’s team “searched hard” for differences. They found “little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses, shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. In fact, he concluded:

“Overall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions.”

A strong focus on the loss of children by death suggests to the modern Western mind “a particular role for mothering. But in fact there are few, if any, clear depictions of women caring for, holding, or nursing children…

“In spite of the widespread use of the term ‘Mother Goddess’ [based on an early interpretation of a clay statue of a woman]…, there is very little evidence that mothering was central to symbolic life.”

Interpretations are changing all the time with new ways of looking at gender. At least some classless societies are now thought by some archaeologists and anthropologists to have not had any idea of gender. The evidence in Çatalhöyük fits with this. Hodder concludes:

“We have little evidence of distinct roles for men and women throughout the early and middle occupation of the site… There is little evidence that gender was of central importance in assigning social roles.” Or that any differences in dress or lives “meant that one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle.

Çatalhöyük indicates that the memory of the brutal class society which had been emerging in Çayönü and other places in Anatolia must have played a role in the careful organisation of everyday life which continued traditions of collectivity and egalitarianism for so long. House beside house, generation after generation, activities were governed by the same layout and symbolism.

For example ovens were always on the southern wall which were free of decoration, while in the north parts of the houses where burials always took place, walls are painted, embellished with amazing plaster art works, and bulls’ horns. The thousands who lived in Çatalhöyük showed that a settled, urbanised society could live in classless harmony.

This Anatolian Neolithic society stands as a beacon of hope for the future of humanity. Mehmet Ozdogan is a Turkish archaeologist who worked on the excavations in the early 1990s and has written widely about his conclusions. He expressed the wonder and intrigue these societies hold for those who study them when in 2005 he described what he regards as their “outstanding” features:

“a social system that enchanted [sic] sharing and distributing knowledge… such an active interaction and sharing of knowledge could not have been taking place under stress or hostility. … we do not agree with interpretations such as ‘rivalry’ or ‘competition’ or ‘conflict’ among settlements. Almost all known [of these] sites were becoming prosperous…and to our knowledge, there is no evidence of either hostility or of plunder.”

The power of Çatalhöyük to touch the imagination and desire for a decent world today has the capacity to displace the despondency and pessimism induced by eight decades of Stalinism in the twentieth century. I think this quote from archaeologist Paul Wason, in his conclusions about Çatalhöyük, backs up my point:

“To a war-weary century, whose own experiments with classless society have failed in the most extraordinary manner, this model encourages hope that something of the sort may nevertheless be possible – at least if it correctly appraises these societies both in their claim to ‘civilization’ and to their classless character, largely peaceful orientation, and relative equality of the sexes.

Sandra will speak in more detail about Çatalhöyük and the evidence for a social revolution in Neolithic Anatolia in about 7,200 BC at Marxism2010, at 10.00am Friday 2 April.


Ian Hodder, The Leopard’s Tale.Revealing the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, (2006).

Mehmet Ozdogan and & Nezih Basgelen (eds), Neolithic in Turkey. The cradle of civilisation – new discoveries (1999).

Antonio Sagona and Paul Zimansky, Ancient Turkey, (2009).

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