|Social revolution in the neolithic world?||
| Sandra Bloodworth
27 April 2010
Neolithic Anatolia is of particular interest to Marxists because there is evidence of a social revolution about 7,200BC which overthrew a brutal ruling elite in Çayönü. And the latest thinking is that there could well have been similar revolutions around the surrounding region. The outcome of these rebellions was the classless society known to have existed at Çatalhöyük for at least the next 1,000 years.
Discoveries since 1961 in Neolithic Anatolia challenge old assumptions that gatherer-hunter societies were by necessity nomadic, and that settled communities lived from domesticated animals and plants. Hallan Cemi was settled as early as 10,000 BC, Göbekli Tepe from 9,600 to 8,000 BC, Çayönü from 9,400 to 7,000 BC and Nevalı Çori from 8,600 to 7,900BC. These are all clear examples of sedentary gathering and hunting societies.
One study of the diet of Çayönü showed that it was mainly wild game, lentils and vetch, with no evidence of domesticated plants until nearly 7,000 BC. Domestication only developed gradually, often over very long periods of time stretching out to perhaps a thousand or more years, with settlements depending on gathering and hunting to varying degrees.
These neolithic societies show the developing divisions of labour and the trend towards hierarchical societies much earlier than was previously known. Göbekli Tepe (9,600-8,000 BC) is thought to have been a ceremonial centre, with no houses for living. This suggests a high level of culture and interaction between communities over some distance. It indicates the existence of a religious elite, i.e. the beginning of hierarchical divisions.
Antonio Sagona and Paul Zimansky published a summary of the latest knowledge about Neolithic Anatolia in 2009. They describe the houses at the lower layers of the excavation at Çayönü, i.e. the earliest:
They “display uniformity of size and plan” arranged around a central, communal area “used for feasting and related activities that bonded the community.”
However later there’s evidence of the beginning of social differentiation. By 8,000 BC or so there were clear signs of a society dividing between those who worked to provide the needs of the community and those who surrounded themselves with trinkets denoting privilege and luxury, but who did not work to acquire them.
In the west of the settlement there developed what might be called an industrial area where the houses are all virtually the same, with little public space, but in which food is produced and stone tools are manufactured. In the East, there are stores of obsidian, a prized hard volcanic rock, which was probably traded. But there are no signs of it being worked into the mirrors and tools that it was used for. In the west, there are no stores of obsidian, but there is evidence of it being worked up.
To emphasise this division, there are special buildings which appear to have been used for some kind of rituals. They are described by archaeologists as monumental temples, sometimes “shrines” (which were found around this whole area)
“reflecting an elaborate cult, which was sustained by an organised economy, requiring a significant investment of energy by a hierarchically structured society.”
In an earlier summary of findings Mehmet Ozdogan, an archaeologist at the site, concluded:
“There is growing evidence that a social group related to the cults and temples also controlled the economy.”
The art in these buildings has held archaeologists in awe ever since its first excavation. One writer explains its vibrant symbolism like this:
“an expression of the desire to control ritual behaviour and the supernatural world, in order to control the natural world.”
Others have written about the needs of such a community to explain and to come to terms with its new experience of sedentary life and the beginning of domestication of plants and animals. In the words of two archaeologists who described Çayönü:
“The practices and the architectural structures in which they were performed probably point to social discriminations, to a hierarchical society in which an emerging elite manipulated surplus wealth and controlled what could not be seen” [i.e. spiritual life].
Sagona and Zimansky describe a crisis followed by deterioration of cultural activities and the shrinking size of the settlement some time just before 7,000 BC. Bernard Brosius (in an article published first in 2005 and in English in 2009) argues there was a social revolution involving the deliberate destruction of the main cult building in 7,200 BC. It was burnt down, huge columns which dominated a large public courtyard were deliberately broken and the site turned into a garbage tip. And after that, the houses were larger, although of uniform size with no special buildings.
Now there are pros and cons to this argument. There is a seminal article by Mehmet Ozdogan, but I have not been able to get a copy. Brosius cites a later article by Ozdogan as “confirming” his earlier argument that there was no explanation other than that a revolution overturned the existing social arrangements. But if you read that article, Ozdogan says of the period when this destruction and change occurred:
“Possible reasons for this collapse in cultural development are too complex to deal with here. [He refers us to that article I haven’t been able to read]. Climate change and over-exploitation of the land are among the explanations proposed; we suggest that some form of social turbulence may have lain beneath this turmoil.”
Hardly an unambiguous confirmation. And in the frustratingly ambiguous phrases with which they typically sidle around the issue, Sagona and Zimansky discuss the exodus of the population from here and other places and the establishment of a network of smaller settlements. They put it down to the stress of living in larger communities, and a desire for the more flexible lifestyle possible in smaller settlements. But they do quote other writers who discuss the possibility of increasing “social conflict”.
Strengthening Brosius’s case, Mehmet Ozdogan discusses this crisis in a 2005 article. There he rejects arguments which put it down to environmental changes. Instead he says the movements away from these old centres is so far reaching that it
“implies that some sort of social turbulence must have been the main reason ... [for] the motivation to migrate.”
Then in a personal communication, when Ozdogan kindly replied to an email enquiry I made, he says:
“I am almost sure that there must have been some sort of social turbulence by the end of PPN, [pre-pottery neolithic, the time we’re discussing] not only at Cayönü but in most of the core area of Neolithic Anatolia.”
So there are always qualifications. But this is to be expected as the whole history of archaeology and in particular around the sites of Anatolia is affected by the new information and new ways of interpreting the information that are developing and coming to light all the time. Many of the conclusions drawn by the first archaeologist who excavated Çatalhöyük, James Mellaart, have been significantly revised.
It is clear from the evidence that very divided, sometimes quite brutal societies were established in Anatolia by the ninth millennium BC. But at around 7,200-7,000 BC revolts do appear to have taken place that at least contributed to a developing crisis.
I think on balance the evidence does most strongly indicate social rebellions which ended the emerging class societies.
If you read about neolithic societies, you find that burning down houses was a common practice, from East Anatolia through that region, into the Balkans. So we might conclude this was simply the usual burning and burying of a building which occurred every couple of generations.
But in Çayönü in 7,200 BC it is different. There had been a previous destruction of a special or cult building in Çayönü about 800 years earlier, when the old building was built over, as was the usual practice.
Then, it was covered with an elaborate foundation which in turn was covered with highly polished pink pebbles which had to be carried from nearby mountains. This formed the floor of a new, grand structure known as the Terrazzo Floor Building, built on the ruins of the old building. Its magnificence was emphasised by the pink floor which was highlighted by a row of white pebbles at each end.
Also, at around the same time as the destruction in Çayönü in 7,200 BC, there appears to have been intentional destruction and burial of similar “unique” buildings in Beidha and Nevalı Çori, in line with Mehmet Ozdogan’s claim that there appears to have been social turmoil in the whole region. And from then, the large centres regress and smaller settlements appear around Anatolia.
Sagona and Zimansky argue that some time between about 7,000 BC and 6,500 BC, at least some buildings were deliberately burnt down in Çatalhöyük. One which could be a “shrine” was filled with rubbish, reminiscent of the deliberate destruction and desecration in Çayönü and completely different from the usual practice of building over burnt structures.
All of which points to the validity of the basic proposition at the heart of Marxism: that it is possible for the exploited to rid themselves of tyranny. If the revolutionaries of 9,000 years ago could do it, then the modern working class, with its immense social power and ability to stop production, can certainly do it.