It was commonly held that agriculture was the driving force behind early cities, cultures and civilizations. Discoveries in recent decades reveal that commenerative sites pre-date the earliest cities, thereby bringing people together culturally ahead of permanant cohabitation and advanced agriculture.
Permanant settlements developed before full agricultural domestication. Humans first began to give up their nomadic life before there were fields and flocks to tend. Instead, the first requirement was to set up common belief systems and social boundaries. These allow non-related humans to spend time together, within the context of predictable behaviour and mores. Once a cultural language is established, humans can spend more time in proximity than just clan-gathering celebrations and ceremonies.
Changing the way humans feed themselves was a secondary consideration to this early cultural era in humans. The value of urban trade of wares and stories was understood early. Settlements were a focus of human interest.
Another important feature is to keep in mind is there were many corners of the Earth where this developing ‘culture’ dawned. No civilization grew in isolation; there were always communities spread across large land tracts that would fuel ideas and wealth to cultural (r)evolution. Like the majestic buildings of a capital city, civilizations are the expressions made large of an extended settlement of linked burroughs.
Early Social Casting
Agriculture was a slow development that lasted thousands of years, arguably until today. It is now seen as a result of cultural developments, not its origin. Then, as now, being a farmer is a harder lifestyle than that of a hunter. A farmer must tend the flock, the orchard, the fields every day, and can never really be away from it; the skilled hunter is required more intermittently.
Labour division in the family has young adults and children contributing as they can, while older family members plan and organize tasks to completion and teach skills. Tasks divided among those best capable in larger clans and community lead to social classes.
The first specialization is likely to be best hunter or most knowledgable gatherer. A clan`s storyteller and cultural keeper would be held in high regard, a core role for elders. The setting for cultural exchange, then as now, would be evening activity. It would have a solemn air, and invite formality as the deeds and artifacts of ancestors are brought to life.
It follows that there are times when communities are brought together. The passing of community members has, for the past 100,000 years, brought with it ceremony. The meeting of clans during various seasonal festivals has served as a focal point for people’s lives for ages. It follows that those in charge of cultural sanctuary, of monuments and sacred places would be seen as a spiritual caste.
The specialist making valuable contributions will be sought after, while the unskilled offer less. Specialization will drive barter, more formal education, and status. During fishing season, the hook maker is king, while the successful well-digger is exhalted during drought.
Genetics can hand natural skill to some in the next generation, but formal grooming is how most young people grow into social position. Achieved and ascribed status play a central role in the development of social classes and inequalities, a feature less prominent in hunter-gatherer culture.
As the last great cultural artifact to develop, agriculture may have been the last resort for those without other skills. There may in fact be truth to the age old saying: vegetarian is another word for bad hunter. The work of a farmer is appreciated, but it is rarely seen as a rarified social position.
Before the Copper Age
After the Younger Dryas a geological period from approximately 10,900 – 9700 BCE (c. 12,900 to c. 11,700 years ago), winter finally relented. It was the final heave of the the last ice age, the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation which had lasted 2.8 million years and with it, winter began to retreat.
reconstruction of Dolní Věstonice (ca. 27 000 to 23 000 BCE) – by Giovanni Caselli
Humans in Europe, the near East and South Asia began to put aside the nomadic lifestyle that defined the Gravettian culture in the West, the last of the Paleolithic age. 10,000 BCE, marks the transition from Old Stone Age, to Neolithic (New Stone) Age, also widely known as the Agricultural Revolution.
The long ice age had dropped sea levels, connecting land masses that are today separated by expanses of sea. The harsh conditions of the frozen era pushed early humans to explore and set up in many parts of the world, including the Americas, the Far East, South Asia and Australia.
With the warming trend, cultures and civilizations sprung up independently worldwide. Archeological findings of these early cultural blossoms show that technological advances are either found independently, or are shared through trade networks.
The long ice age may partially explain modern society’s blasée attitude toward contemporary climate change. Human indifference to global warming may be a recent genetic pre-disposition to the potential of warmer climates over a frozen landscape.
Some of the earliest known examples of this cultural expansion is seen in the Fertile Crescent, stretching from the Nile River valley, across the Sinai to the Rift Valley on the eastern Meddeterranean, across the southern reaches of the Taurus mountains, and down into the Mesopotamian river valleys to the Persian Gulf.
Yet before agriculture, the steppe of central and southern Turkey was home to a coalescing hunter-gatherer culture.
This is a pre-historic site dating from roughly 12000 years ago, near Sanliurfa, Turkey. These structures come from a pre-pottery society. The pre-Neolithic hill was discovered by Klaus Schmidt in 1994.
Rather than an inhabited site, the large and extensive stone work is interpreted as ceremonial. The sanctuary has 23 known circular monuments around dual centre totems. Once completed, the temples in the complex was intentionally buried, with newer smaller obelisc built nearby.
The site is significant as it was built by a hunter-gather culture, at a time where stone tools and timber were the only real available to quarry, move, sculpt and erect steles. One viewpoint is that a more bountiful climate allowed large numbers of people to participate in annual ritual gatherings.
Summer – Autumn festivals must have collected clans from distant locations for annual celebrations, for families and young people to associate, for trade and story telling. Long travel suggests a weeks or months long stay at the sanctuary.
This duration gave opportunity for ritual site building, memorializing their gatherings, their growing culture, and possibly their dead. Having young adults work with older, more experienced people from other families and clans can build strong bonds, language, and continuity.
Rituals then like now, mixed with veneration of the ancients and mysteries, firelight, music, dance and possibly even intoxicants. The magical mood such events create for participants would certainly have a profound impact on young people, and further existing and new cultural codification.
It is now considered that seasonal clan gatherings first built such culturally binding complexes. Only later were more permanent large towns and domestic buildings constructed.
Aşıklı Höyük – Çatalhöyük
There were settlements that later sprung up in this region in general proximity to the temple site. To the west of Göbekli Tepe 600 km two signficant sites were discovered.
Çatalhöyük was a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement in southern Anatolia, which existed for nearly 2000 years, and flourished around 7000 BC. Its approximate population was as high as 4000 individuals. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A nearby site is Boncuklu Höyük (Beaded Mount), approximately 10 km to the north, and is considered to date to 9500 BC, before Çatalhöyük.
- Aşıklı Höyük – fe-mitolojisozlugu (Turkish)
- Aşıklı Höyük – TAY project
- Hacilar (7050 BC – 5000 BC) – settlement near modern Burdur, 350 km west of Çatalhöyük
- Köşk Höyük (6300 – 5000 BC) – an important center in the obsidian trade in the Chalcolithic era – approximate 200 km east of Çatalhöyük – Köşk Höyük (wikipedia)
- Asikli Hoyuk – Megalithic Portal
- Çatalhöyük comes Home – Archaeology International
Other pre-bronze cultures
Mehrgarh and the Harappan Civilization
Mehrgarh is a neolithic settlement dating from approximately 7000 – 2000 BCE and may have had up to 25,000 inhabitants, five times the size of contemporary Çatalhöyük. It is considered the birthplace of dental surgery, and has the earliest signs of cotton usage. It is located to the west of the Indus Valley, but is considered a pre-cursor to the wide spread Harappan / Indus Valley Civilization (3300 – 1300).
Similar to the Anatolian model, this settlement spans the pre-agricultural, aceramic (before pottery), chalcolithic periods. The archeology of these sites again points to a significant cultural and urban development that predates widespread agriculture.
It is possible that ancient, pre-urban cultural monuments like Çatalhöyük will be found for the proto-Harappan, furthering the notion that cultural sanctuary sites predate cities and agriculture as the first communally built mega-projects.
Ubaid and Uruk period
Ubaid culture was present in Mesopotamia, near the Persian Gulf, approximately 6500 to 3800 BCE, while the Uruk Period in the same geography lasted from about 4000 to 3100 BCE).
Early developments are characterized by large unwalled village settlements, characterized by multi-roomed rectangular mud-brick houses and the appearance of the first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia, with a growth of a two tier settlement hierarchy of centralized large sites of more than 10 hectares surrounded by smaller village sites of less than 1 hectare.
Jericho and the Natufian
Another pre-neolithic site is Jericho, near the western shore of the Jordan River, a setttlement present near the Ein es-Sultan spring. It is said that the Natufian culture, which existed from around 12,500 to 9,500 BC, first created the settlement between approximately 10,000 BCE.
Previously known as Tell es-Sultan, it is considered by some to be the oldest known city. Its habitation and culture were not continuous, but it has yielded many layers of archeological information.
A great deal of what is known about the history of the cities of Jericho are credited to Kathleen Kenyon , a leading archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Fertile Crescent.
Ghassulian culture in the Chalcolithic Age
A lesser known culture was based out of Teleilat Ghassul, a settlement / site on the eastern bank of the Jordan River just where it enters the Dead Sea. It thrived over a thousand years during the first phase of the Neolithic agricultural revolution.
Researchers say the crossroads market town,Teleilat Ghassul lasted most of the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age, (4,500-3,200 BCE). It declined es as the Copper Age shifts into the Bronze Age, and neighboring cultures (Canaanite, Sumerian, and Egyptian) ascended.
It’s proximity to fresh water, salt and copper ore drew traders. herdsmen, and travellers from distant lands to exchange with and through the Ghassulian culture. Early olive, fruit and nut tree cultivation, as well as animal domestication for wool (fabrics), cheese and eggs were among cultural artifacts. Evidence of perfumes, spices, dyes, resins and wine were also to be found.
Surplus gave rise to trade, and people were quickly attracted to markets with exotics and riches. The key was to have multiple conditions focused, so a variety of goods were available.
“Ghassulian culture has been identified at numerous other places in southern Palestine, especially in the region of Beersheba. The Ghassulian culture correlates closely with the Amratian of Egypt and also seems to have affinities (e.g., the distinctive churns, or “bird vases”) with early Minoan materials in Crete.”
The delicate and volatile nature of field crops such as grains and vegetables was one of last innovations to make its way into the cultures. Earth quality, pests, water scarcity made this farming risky. Extended agriculture is suggested by irrigation that would have required the work of many to accomplish, attesting to public work projects.
The domestication of water: water management in the ancient world and its prehistoric origins in the Jordan Valley –
Farming – Tightening of the social noose
Certainly farming originates from nomadic seasonal plant harvests, to planted and tended orchards and gardens, to effective food preservation and storage.
Once settlements and towns became permanent, agriculture would become another way by which such places could stockpile supplies and sustain local populations and visitors. Graneries could be more filled in plentiful harvests, and better feed during winter and famine. As a concept, it makes sense, but who would do this work?
Most argue that farming is a far more laborious lifestyle than hunting and gathering. The herd needs water, pasture, milking, protection. Planting and harvests happen at specific times and are sensitive to adversity.
Understanding how and making convenient a crop field isn’t as important, as accepting the volume of work required. Preparing seed stock, planting, protecting it from animal / pest invasion, and harvest would need to be a mutual and work intensive effort. Creating the surplus would require a team and a captain who prioritized and organized activity.
Group effort for monument-building first, then settlement building open the way for group food cultivation and social ranking. Unlike hunters, or even gatherers where great skill could bring great results and social leadership, and lack of skill excluded others from participating, agricultural work could be done by unskilled members of the society. The social clan esteem of the”food provider” is reduced in agriculture.
In the context of a early castes, farmers provide a basic but non-specialized need. Their contribution to the social complex in early cultures is entry-level, except maybe the organizer of field-hands. So agriculture drew in the unskilled, the young, the old, the semi-feeble, who in hunter-gatherer society would not have had to work.
Farming becomes the stepping stone for a work-based society, where everyone should have a worth, and provide the sacrifice of themselves in favour of their families, clan, and culture and city. It also drove the interest in the organizations to seek out inexpensive workers, or even slaves. It is proposed that human cultures’ transition from hunter-gatherer to urban-agrarian required an acceptance of non-equitable resource distribution. (read: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization)
It is also likely that the transition to socially stratefied agriculture saw the rise of authoritarianism, militarism and aristocracy. Where hunter-gatherer groups rely on the skills of the most knowledgable and physically-skilled to provide the rest of the modest clan food, agrarian life spread food tasks to others and harvests to larger groups of people. The strongest, smartest, most driven in such new society could focus their energy on organizing and enforcing their projects and position.
The earliest clear evidence of the domestication of Einkorn dates from 10,600 to 9,900 years before present (8,650 BC to 7,950 BC), from Çayönü ( 7200 to 6600 BC) and Cafer Höyük (8920 BCE) two Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B archaeological sites in southern Turkey. These are approximate 600 km to the West of Çatalhöyük, near the upper Euphrates. These settlements seem to coincide with their pre-agricultural neighbors, but didn’t quite get to be as large.
Agriculture was a feature of this time, but not the dominant one. The agricultural social stratification seen in later civilizations is not evident in these earlier settlements. There are not city walls, nor palaces. They suggest a more egalitarian social order.
Agricultural History links
- The Oasis Theory and the Origins of Agriculture – K. Kris Hirst
- The Origins of Farming in South-West Asia
- Art of cheese-making is 7,500 years old
- The Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic Transition at Teleilat Ghassul – Stephen J. Bourke
- Chalcolithic Period – The Beginnings of Copper Metallurgy – K. Kris Hirst
- Definitive evidence for the full domestication of emmer wheat is not found until the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (10,200 to 9,500 BP), at sites such as Beidha, Tell Ghoraifé, Jericho, Abu Hureyra, Tell Halula, Tell Aswad and Cafer Höyük.
- Ancient Jericho: Tell es-Sultan – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
- Kathleen Kenyon, (5 January 1906 – 24 August 1978), was a leading archaeologist of Neolithic culture in the Fertile Crescent.
- Anatolia – The Craddle of Civilization
- Explore Ancient Anatolia
Respect for the dead is a cultural binder that humans have done for up to 100,000 years. Funerary Dolmen, common throughout the Neolithic world also required large scale cooperation in the community, feats that require a common focus among the population, as well as vision and leadership to organize it.
The discovery of the Ghassoulian Star painted on an interior wall has led to the thought this was an early cultural binding symbol, possibly even religious. Such an artifact points to the continued role of cultural / religious identification and organization.
That the symbol is idenfied as as star has two significances. First is the association with yearly seasons, and secondly binding the star with our own sun. Together these suggest a calendar marked by points in the year. Knowledge of this flow would be a cultural bind and be expressed in ritual.
The development of cultures would also see their decline. Factors contibute to a region becoming less influencial, and cause the abandonment of a city, and decline of a culture, a phenomena seen often in archeology. Not all human developments are progressive.
The decline of the Ghassulian culture came about for one or more of the top three reasons. A changing agricultural / resource climate, diversification in other cultures to locally source the commodities that had once been rare, and warfare. All three reasons speak to cultural obsolescence.
Bronze brought advanced weaponry, warfare and feudal rule, which is always detrimental to a border region without military might.
Written history is considered to be only 6,000 years old. Sumerian Cuneiform and Egyptian glyph mark the beginning of the Bronze Age around 3500 BCE. Earlier forms of proto-writing are seen in the Vinča symbols and signs written on the Dispilio tablet, both from central and southern Europe from the sixth millenium BCE, as well as the Jiahu symbols from ancient China of seventh millennium BCE.
The written use of numbers is much older, possibly 40,000 years old. And what are these earliest writings about? Record-keeping and tallies for gambling, horses, personal services and trade-goods. This recording of daily domestic and trade was the beginning of written language.
Numbers and early math were truly the universal written language. Glyph was attempt to unite multiple verbal languages, but those outside such a common zone would not understand.
Like any two humans who do not share a language, visual cues including body gesture, and stick drawing in the dirt may be used to get one’s message across. Fingers and recorded marks representing numbers are the cornerstone to more precise, negotiated, mercantile exchange, and may have complimented the origins of languages.
When the written word did appear, it was to register laws, transactions, and, only more recently, to capture cultural artifact.
Stories of epic adventures of heroes, their struggle and victory is far more interesting than accounting records, but were recounted by bard song, illustration, drama, music and sculpture at worksites, at meals, together in groups. Written words are a limited artistic expression of dramas, and didn’t find much early expression.
Reading text by one’s self is different than the shared artistic execution of a campfire epic, or sculpture of a common hero in a palace. It took time to develop the tool and the audience.
Bronze – Introducing State Warfare
The transition to the Bronze age saw the rise of warfare and defensive construction, a development that tended to erase cultures that were conquered or defeated, but also left behind more city walls and stone structures. Like the Chalcolithic period, the landscape saw many geographies and cultures develop and decline over the centuries, which is an important feature when reviewing ancient histories. It’s like looking at a building but forgetting that is part of a cityscape.
Starting with the Ebla kingdoms in Syria (3500 – 1600BC), a history of three destructions by invading forces. The ascent of Egypt (3150 BC), Mesopotamia (2900 BC) and the Hittite in Anatolia (1800 – 1100 BC). Strattling the cresent was the Western European civilization known as the Beaker culture grow between 2900 – 1800 BC), while to the East of Mesopotamia was Elam (3200 – 540 BC), an early Persian culture, which linked to cultures further East in the Indian subcontinent.
The early cultures of the copper age began to rub against one another, sometimes creating trade and growth, other times causing warfare and destruction. Competition is an biological imperative, but now humans had cultural and technological tools to pursue this on a scale not yet seen.
The challenges of the hunt are muted by the advent of agriculture. The achievement of a regulated food regime lessened the stories of overcoming life-and-death adversity that came from the hunt. War became one way to put back the group importance lost to the monotany of the farmer, and enhance cultural binds between people.
Feast – the key to civilization
One principle legacy from the Paleolithic stone age was the feast. A successful hunt or harvest would animate the participants. It would envigorate people, and bring them together, to share stories and songs of the day, of the past. Food and drink, and even intoxicants would lubricate such occasions.
High festivals would be organized around specific times, such as the bountiful days of high summer, and draw people from distant places. These assemblies would become significant milestones for participants, as they prepared provisions and gifts. Long travel and infrequent meetings made such gatherings meaningful. Young adults would use the opportunity to be coupled with those outside their clan or village; adults meet up with old friends, children make new connections.
Commemorative artifact gave permanance to the occasions, and to the site that held them. The attraction of people to one another pulls them together, in families, clans, and regional festivals. Language and cultural values defined the parameters of association. This is the basis upon which humans could begin to develop cities, agriculture and civilizations.