Natufian supporting wall

The development of the earliest villages in the Near East coincided with first domestication of grasses like wild barley and wheat. Large fields with these wild grains are still found in Anatolia in present-day Turkey.

Between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago former hunter gatherers began to settle down for at least part of the year in the Near East with the first permanent sentiments appeared around 10,000 years ago around 8000 B.C.

It is now widely accepted that in the Near East villages preceded agriculture: ancient people first settled down and then started planting crops. Data indicates that the first year-round permanent settlements predated agriculture by around 3,000 years.

In the 1980s, a severe drought in Israel caused the Sea of Galilee to shrink, revealing a previously unknown archaeological site, later named Ohalo 11. Archaeologists found the burned remains of three huts made from brush plants. The discovery of hearths and burials led observers to conclude it was a small year-round camp for hunter-gatherers. Carbon dating revealed it to be 23,000 years old.

Brian Byrd, an archaeologist with the Far Western Anthropological Research group in Davis California, noted that during The Neolithic period in southern Levant (modern day Lebanon, Israel and Palestine) there was a shift to greater autonomy and complexity on the household level. This pattern also hold true with early settlements in Anatolia.

Good Websites Archaeology News Report archaeologynewsreport.blogspot.com ; Anthropology.net anthropology.net : archaeologica.org archaeologica.org ; Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com ; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org ; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com; Live Science livescience.com/

Early Villages

Restoration of a Çatalhöyük room

Çatalhöyük in central Turkey, established around 7500 B.C., is regarded in many circles as the world's oldest town. Other places which claim to be the world’s oldest town include Jericho in Israel, which had an estimated 2,700 people in 7800 B.C.,and the settlement of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic has been dated to 27,000 B.C. but many believe was too small to qualify as a town. See Separate article on Çatalhöyük.

The earliest villages were built where wild grains and large wild animals that ate these wild grains were abundant. By settling in permanent communities, early villagers could get food more efficiently than hunter-gatherers. The areas in which the first villages were established contained wild wheat, barely, peas and lentils as well as the precursors of domesticated sheep, cattle, pigs and goats.

Early villages in the Near East had pits and walled structures for storing grain, roasting ovens (for cracking the husks), grinders (for making flour), and places for making cakes and porridge. These heavy items were difficult to carry around and thus made a village lifestyle more practical than a hunter-gatherer one. [Source: “Cannibals and Kings” by Marvin Harris, Vintage, 1977]

Settling in villages, towns and cities, allowed people to accumulate possessions (nomads on the move can’t carry many possessions with them). The desire to keep track of these possessions with lists is believed to have been one reason for the development of writing. Excavations of early villages shows evidence of cleaning in the form of swept floors and garbage kept in one place.

Neolithic Revolution Theory

Restoration of a Çatalhöyük room

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, "V. Gordon Childe, an Australian transplant to Britain, was a flamboyant man, a passionate Marxist who wore plus fours and bow ties and larded his public addresses with noodle-headed paeans to Stalinism. He was also one of the most influential archaeologists of the past century. A great synthesist, Childe wove together his colleagues' disconnected facts into overarching intellectual schemes. The most famous of these arose in the 1920s, when he invented the concept of the Neolithic Revolution. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

In today's terms, Childe's views could be summed up like this: Homo sapiens burst onto the scene about 200,000 years ago. For most of the millennia that followed, the species changed remarkably little, with humans living as small bands of wandering foragers. Then came the Neolithic Revolution — "a radical change," Childe said, "fraught with revolutionary consequences for the whole species." In a lightning bolt of inspiration, one part of humankind turned its back on foraging and embraced agriculture. The adoption of farming, Childe argued, brought with it further transformations. To tend their fields, people had to stop wandering and move into permanent villages, where they developed new tools and created pottery. The Neolithic Revolution, in his view, was an explosively important event — "the greatest in human history after the mastery of fire."

Of all the aspects of the revolution, agriculture was the most important. For thousands of years men and women with stone implements had wandered the landscape, cutting off heads of wild grain and taking them home. Even though these people may have tended and protected their grain patches, the plants they watched over were still wild. Wild wheat and barley, unlike their domesticated versions, shatter when they are ripe — the kernels easily break off the plant and fall to the ground, making them next to impossible to harvest when fully ripe. Genetically speaking, true grain agriculture began only when people planted large new areas with mutated plants that did not shatter at maturity, creating fields of domesticated wheat and barley that, so to speak, waited for farmers to harvest them.

Rather than having to comb through the landscape for food, people could now grow as much as they needed and where they needed it, so they could live together in larger groups. Population soared. "It was only after the revolution — but immediately thereafter — that our species really began to multiply at all fast," Childe wrote. In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art — the hallmarks of civilization — flourished.

Childe, like most researchers today, believed that the revolution first occurred in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of land that curves northeast from Gaza into southern Turkey and then sweeps southeast into Iraq. Bounded on the south by the harsh Syrian Desert and on the north by the mountains of Turkey, the crescent is a band of temperate climate between inhospitable extremes. Its eastern terminus is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq — the site of a realm known as Sumer, which dates back to about 4000 B.C. In Childe's day most researchers agreed that Sumer represented the beginning of civilization. Archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer summed up that view in the 1950s in his book History Begins at Sumer.

Natufians and the Debunking of Neolithic Revolution Theory

Natufian skeletons

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, In the Levant — the area that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and western Syria — archaeologists had discovered settlements dating as far back as 13,000 B.C. Known as Natufian villages (the name comes from the first of these sites to be found), they sprang up across the Levant as the Ice Age was drawing to a close, ushering in a time when the region's climate became relatively warm and wet. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, June 2011]

Although the Natufians lived in permanent settlements of up to several hundred people, they were foragers, not farmers, hunting gazelles and gathering wild rye, barley, and wheat. "It was a big sign that our ideas needed to be revised," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.

Natufian villages ran into hard times around 10,800 B.C., when regional temperatures abruptly fell some 12̊F, part of a mini ice age that lasted 1,200 years and created much drier conditions across the Fertile Crescent. With animal habitat and grain patches shrinking, a number of villages suddenly became too populous for the local food supply. Many people once again became wandering foragers, searching the landscape for remaining food sources.

Some settlements tried to adjust to the more arid conditions. The village of Abu Hureyra, in what is now northern Syria, seemingly tried to cultivate local stands of rye, perhaps replanting them. After examining rye grains from the site, Gordon Hillman of University College London and Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology argued in 2000 that some were bigger than their wild equivalents — a possible sign of domestication, because cultivation inevitably increases qualities, such as fruit and seed size, that people find valuable. Bar-Yosef and some other researchers came to believe that nearby sites like Mureybet and Tell Qaramel also had had agriculture.

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world...The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, "If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area." Agriculture followed.

The idea that the Neolithic Revolution was driven by climate change resonated during the 1990s, a time when people were increasingly worried about the effects of modern global warming. It was promoted in countless articles and books and ultimately enshrined in Wikipedia. Yet critics charged that the evidence was weak, not least because Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, and many other sites in northern Syria had been flooded by dams before they could be fully excavated. "You had an entire theory on the origins of human culture essentially based on a half a dozen unusually plump seeds," ancient-grain specialist George Willcox of the National Center for Scientific Research, in France, says. "Isn't it more likely that these grains were puffed during charring or that somebody at Abu Hureyra found some unusual-looking wild rye?"

Precursors to Early Villages

mammoth bone hut like that found in the Dolni Vestonice area

Around 14,000 years ago settlements with dwellings made of stone began appearing in modern day Israel and Jordan. The inhabitants, sedentary hunter-gatherers known as Natufians, buried their dead under their houses.

Around 13,000 years ago hunter-gatherers in Mount Carmel, Israel produced basin-shaped depressions, built stone rings around permanent hearths and laid paving stones near their rock shelters. Seed-eaters from the 12,000-old Mallaha site in the Jordan River Valley made stone foundations for round houses and plaster storage pits. Both cultures, its appears, used flint "sickles" to harvest grain.

Grain cutting, grain storing and grain roasting structures have been found at Zawi Chemi Shanidar — a unique pre-agricultural site located in the Zagros Mountains by the Zab River of northern Iraq — that dates back to between 10,000 and 8,000 B.C. Clay-walled houses, grinding stones, roasting pits and 18 separate kinds of wild seeds that included the ancestors of wheat and barley were found in Tell Mureybat, a 10,000-year-old site at the headwaters of Euphrates in Syria.

Neolithic Society and Community

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh said in a lecture: ““Bands”, “tribes”, “ranked societies” and “chiefdoms” are top-down definitions of social group into which we have tried to fit prehistoric societies: community is a bottom-up notion of social group that is recognized by the individuals who are the members of a community, but is hard to categorize from the perspective of the social scientist. It is perhaps rather easier for the prehistoric archaeologist interested in the Neolithic of southwest Asia to recognize in the deeply stratified settlements the former existence of communities; those settlements could not have lasted across their chronological span of centuries unless their inhabitants felt that they were a community. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, January 2012
“The two central issues with community are social capital and trust. Social capital is all that a community has invested in social engagement and cooperation, and in the social coherence of their community and its good functioning. In Field’s words capital is the importance of social relationships, and the idea that “social networks are a valuable asset”. Studies of contemporary societies indicate that societies with a good “stock” of social capital, measured in terms of the density of social interactions and the richness of social networks, show lower than average crime statistics, better health, greater educational achievement, and better economic well-being. Conversely, reducing levels of social capital are associated with the breakdown of society. Social capital is reinforced by social memory (to which I shall return), and is closely involved with trust. The new communities, numbering hundreds and even thousands of people, were very challenging for the individual; they involved living with large numbers of people to whom you were not related and whom you scarcely knew, but whom you needed to trust. Signalling common membership of community was essential. And sociologists, unsurprisingly, note a correlation between reduced social capital and the breakdown of trust, whether trust in other members of society or trust in the society’s institutions. /+\

“The formation and maintenance of Neolithic communities, involving large numbers of individuals, required measures that would transcend the biological capacity of the individual human brain – now being referred to as Dunbar’s number. It also involved the ability of people to understand and value what the philosopher John Searle calls “institutional facts”. Searle uses “money”, “marriage” and “baseball” as examples. Colin Renfrew explores when the concept of “value” can be inferred from the archaeological record. For our purposes, Neolithic communities required intuitive concepts such as “home”, “household”, “neighbour” and being a good neighbour. These institutional facts can be mapped onto the architecture of the settlement. The social capital of the community could also be mapped into social memory through the medium of the community’s historic environment and its customary behaviours and ceremonies. /+\

Merlin Donald’s theory on the evolution of hominin cognition and culture has become fairly well-known among archaeologists because of the third and most recent transformation in hominin cultural communication, which he labels “external symbolic storage”. Donald originally argued that the emergence of alphabetic writing completed that transformation; but Renfrew argued with him that other uses of material culture could serve as modes of symbolic storage, and Donald, in his concluding remarks at that conference, modified his views accordingly. /+\

“The scale, the richness and the complexity of the structures at Göbekli Tepe, or the succession of communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar can only sharpen our awareness that we understand very poorly how the communities of the Early Neolithic functioned. Robert Braidwood’s labelling the period as characterized by “village-farming” was compromised by Kathleen Kenyon’s contemporaneous exposure of the size and complexity of PPNA Jericho, with its wall and ditch, and circular tower. In part, our difficulty with this subject is due to our vocabulary: are the terms “village”, “town” and “city” that we use for our own settlement hierarchies applicable to a period in the prehistoric past? When we look at the large settlements, implying a population of thousands, or the sophistication of Göbekli Tepe or Jerf el Ahmar, it is natural to draw upon our own experience and speculate that those societies must have had hierarchically organized systems of authority and specialized architects, builders, sculptors and artists. To date, there is no evidence in the archaeological record to support such assumptions. We have to think how we can interrogate the archaeological material and sites so as to produce information relevant to the social functioning of these communities and networks of communities. /+\

Emergence of Villages

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “In the Epi-palaeolithic (between 20,000 and 10,000) and Early Neolithic (between 10,000 and 7000 B.C.) in southwest Asia a new settlement and subsistence strategy emerged to replace the ageold mobile hunter-gatherer way of life. For the first time in human history, there grew up permanently sedentary communities. Initially, their economies were based on stored harvests of nutritious seeds (wild cereals and large-seeded grasses, and pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans and vetches) and what has been called “broad spectrum” hunting. It was an economy that required the forward investment of labour in harvesting, storing and processing the plant foods. Broad-spectrum hunting compensated for the almost exclusive reliance on migratory herd animals by investment in skills, equipment and labour in hunting, trapping and fishing for small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. In consequence of a further increase in the pace of population growth during the Early Neolithic, intensive cultivation became inevitable, leading to the farming of domesticated crops of cereals and pulses; the herding and domestication of goat, sheep, pig and cattle soon followed. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“The adoption of a mixed farming subsistence economy changed the social dynamics of production, upgraded the productivity of the economy, and led to an even steeper rise in population growth. For a while, expanding community size might accommodate such population growth. But such a solution could only be temporary, and could actually accelerate a crisis through over-intensive grazing and woodland exploitation, bringing about soil erosion and severe reduction in productivity. Ultimately, the portability of the mixed farming economy supported the longer-term solution of colonizing new land, which we see across many parts of southwest Asia in the later, pottery Neolithic. /+\

excavation at Banpo, one of China's oldest villages

“Long ago, Robert Braidwood asked why farming began in the earliest Holocene, and why it had not begun earlier. His own answer was that it must in some way relate to culture; perhaps, he said, culture was not ready earlier than the Neolithic period. We can ask the same question of the emergence of large-scale, permanent, sedentary communities; after so many thousands, tens and hundreds of thousands of years of living in widely spread groups of small, mobile hunter-gatherer bands, why did people form large, permanently settled communities at that time, and why not earlier? I have argued that this emergence happened in the millennia around 10,000, because increasing population density made it necessary, and because the essential cognitive and cultural facility with systems of symbolic reference that made possible life in large, permanent, sedentary communities was only evolved at that time. /+\

“General population density was increasing through the Upper Palaeolithic and the Epi-palaeolithic periods, at least in some parts of southwest Asia. But there was another factor: the size of permanently co-resident communities grew exponentially through the Epipalaeolithic and on through the earliest Neolithic, and all that before the adoption of farming practices. Using data from the southern Levant, the best-documented part of southwest Asia, Ian Kuijt has shown how the area of settlements increased by a factor of ten between the end of the Epi-palaeolithic and the end of the early, aceramic Neolithic periods. Over the same period, the density of buildings within the settlement area, and the overall size and internal complexity of those buildings also rose exponentially.” /+\

Why Did People Decide to Live Together in Villages

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “If we ask why people made life more difficult for themselves by preferring to live crowded together in one place, we can answer that population density made it necessary. But there is a second answer to be found in the direction of long-term hominin evolution. There is a very good case to be made that hominin evolution has invested in highly cohesive, large-scale, nested social networks. Over the past twenty-five years, there has been much research directed at the evolution of “social intelligence” as the key adaptive area; Robin Dunbar and his research colleagues have developed the “social brain hypothesis”, arguing that the scale and complexity of remembering and using the social relationships within increasingly large social groups has driven the increase in hominin brain size, more particularly the growth of the neo-cortex. Recently, studies of the nature of hominin as opposed to other primate societies have sought to identify the characteristics of what he defines as the “deep structure” that is common to all hominin (and modern human) societies. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

Excavation of house from the Jomon era, which began around 12,000 B.C. in Japan

“Chapais defines the distinctive features of human society as beginning with its organization as “multilevel, nested structures of alliances”. As well as long-term pair-bonding for the bringing up of children, and the recognition of extended kin, including the partner’s kin, Hill et al. demonstrate from their analysis of cross-cultural data from contemporary, small-scale hunter-gatherer societies that members of either sex may disperse or remain in their natal group, and that most individuals in residential groups are genetically unrelated. Thus, humans have evolved highly cohesive social groups that do not depend exclusively on kin relations; and each group will have close kin ties with other groups, enabling them to form effective and cohesive networks. Read has described the critical distinction as the expansion of experientialbased to relational-based forms of social organization. In the form that has been evolved among hominins, probably recently in the evolutionary process, humans can live in societies where relations are defined in terms of cultural constructs such as kinship, and in fission-fusion societies in which an individual lives among a small group (a hunter-gatherer band), but considers himself a member of a larger social group, most of whose members he rarely meets. /+\

“I would argue that what we see in the later Epipalaeolithic and particularly in the Early Neolithic is a scaling up of those age-old nested social networks by an order of magnitude. The classic Upper Palaeolithic site can be associated with repeated use by the classic, mobile, hunter-gatherer band. Anthropology, psychology and genetics can tell us that a network of several such bands, sharing genes, dialect and culture, and with individuals moving between bands, constitute an autonomous social, cultural and genetic unit. Through the Epi-palaeolithic of the southern Levant, the only part of southwest Asia where we have sufficient data, we can see the transition of settlement strategy in process. By the Early Neolithic we can say that the typical site is a settlement that can be associated with a much larger population unit than the traditional mobile huntergatherer band; and the nested networks of exchange and cultural sharing, too, were of greater complexity, greater extent and much greater intensity. /+\

“There are very good arguments for the evolutionary advantages of living in large, networks. It has been shown that levels of cultural innovation and accumulation co-vary with the scale of regional population density: the greater the size of the population unit, the greater the rates of cultural variation, innovation, selection and adoption. Kim Sterelny argues powerfully for a “niche construction model” that provides “rich and extensive scaffolding” so that complex skills are transmitted, and “cognitive capital” is not only maintained but effectively accumulated. And Joseph Henrich has modelled the relationship between the isolation of a too-small island population in Tasmania and the gradual loss of aspects of cultural knowledge. It is therefore reasonable to think that, in spite of the increased load in terms of risk, investment of labour and skills, and social constraints, the new, large, permanent communities of the Neolithic, locked into local, regional and supra-regional networks, evolved to allow greater concentrations of population in more extensive and cohesive nested networks. These innovations provided rich cultural environments that could better conserve cultural capital and generate adaptations and innovations for survival and advancement in an increasingly competitive environment.” /+\

Building Constructs of the First Villages

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “Households, permanently co-resident communities, and the nested networks of communities were new social constructs that replaced the previous pattern of clusters of mobile hunter-gatherer bands. Some of the settlements reached sizes of more than 10 hectares of densely built-up space, and, by the later aceramic Neolithic, population levels for the largest, such as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, or Abu Hureyra in north Syria, or Çatalhöyük in central Anatolia, are estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000 persons. And many of these communities successfully maintained social stability over many centuries. These new communities invented what contemporary architects and planners recognize as “the built environment”. These communities depended upon non-material constructs that enabled large numbers of people to live together over many centuries. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“In the houses of densely packed settlement sites, such as Çatalhöyük or the somewhat earlier Asikli Höyük, both in central Anatolia, the time dimension soon becomes obvious; indeed, Ian Hodder has written of the houses at Çatalhöyük, defining them as “history houses”. Since the houses butted up against one another, when a household set about replacing their old house with a new one, inevitably the new house was founded on the remains of its predecessor, the new walls built on the reduced base of the old house. And it seems perfectly sensible at Çatalhöyük, in the middle of a treeless plain, to remove the roof-beams and the main posts that supported the roof in order to re-use them in the new building. /+\

Reconstruction of a Jomon-era houses in Japan

“But there is evidence at Çatalhöyük that, having built a new house, the occupants attached a plastered bull’s skull to a wall (in the middle of the [green] house) which had been recovered from the equivalent wall of the previous (blue) house. Wherever we look around southwest Asia, the attention that was devoted to the house, its maintenance, and the awareness of the site of the house as the history of its occupants is palpable.” /+\

Burials in Houses

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “There is also a time dimension, a laying down of memory, in the widespread practice through the Epi-palaeolithic and Early Neolithic of burying bodies within the settlement, or, as at Asikli Höyük and parts of southwest Asia, it was common practice in the late Epi-palaeolithic and especially in the Early Neolithic to return to a burial to retrieve the skull. Skulls were curated; sometimes, facial features were modelled onto them. Groups of curated skulls have been found buried in or near houses in caches. Ian Kuijt has written of the cycles of ritual, a first cycle involving the burial of the newly dead body, the second involving the retrieval and curation of skulls, and a third involving the burial of caches of skulls. Thus we can see how memory was formed, modified, shared, reframed and shared again. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“There are two more observations that we can make when we look at the traditions that had developed to frame how bodies were buried in many settlements around the hilly flanks zone. The first is that the number of burials found is never enough to account for the population of the inhabitants who must have lived within the area that has been excavated. In most cases, the number of burials can only equate to a very small percentage of the population. Even at Çatalhöyük, which is famous for the large numbers of bodies found buried beneath the floors of its crowded houses, the excavators estimate that the bodies buried within the houses represent at most half of the population. Since the buried bodies seem to represent a fairly representative cross-section of the population – there are generally as many males as females, and there are children and adolescents, as well as a minority who have reached old age – we can infer that some processes of selection were employed that were not governed by concerns for age, seniority, acquired status or sex. For lack of evidence of any other selection criteria, perhaps we should instead think that a death could be the occasion for ceremonies and rituals that needed to be performed from time to time. Thus, the dead body and its burial might be the necessary medium for ceremonies whose main focus was not on the proper disposal of the body. At Çatalhöyük, for example, there are bodies buried beneath the founding of the wall of a house, or under a doorway between a main and a secondary room. /+\

“The second observation, which has a bearing on memory and tradition, is that there is a very general set of rules that say that certain bodies should be selected for burial within the settlement, in or close to a house; and that, after a due interval, the grave should be dug into and the whole skull or cranium should be retrieved; on the other hand, the precise way in which those general precepts should be articulated is something that has become differentiated from one community to another. As more and more settlements have been investigated, the variations in practice have become clearer. While the usual position of the buried body is lying in a flexed or contracted position on its side, there were communities that did things differently. At Tell Halula, on the Euphrates in the north of Syria, for example, a deep cylindrical pit was dug, and the body, wrapped and bound in a cloth, was placed in a sitting position with the knees drawn up under the chin.

Teviec burial

At Tell Aswad, near Damascus in Syria, bodies were placed against the base of the house wall, sometimes on the exterior face, and sometimes inside the house, or partly in a hollow that was cut into the base of the wall, and covered with soil; the mound that covered the body was plastered over in the same way that floors and wall surfaces were plastered . Here, small plastered mounds were very visible reminders of the ceremony and the body at the centre of that ceremony. But, at a certain point in time, that singular tradition that had developed at Tell Aswad was abandoned, and a quite different, but equally distinct practice was devised to replace it. Two mortuary areas, consisting of broad scoops cut into the earlier strata, were established at the edge of the built-up area of the settlement. Each mortuary area was initiated by the burial of a clutch of skulls. Those skulls had also had facial features modelled in clay on them and painted there in the Levant, but they are rare, although they have been frequently illustrated in books since the first examples were found at Jericho more than half a century ago. Skulls have been found reburied in small groups. But in this case, the last act in the ritual cycles of burial, skull retrieval, curation and reburial was used to institute a new cycle of burials. The deposit of a clutch of skulls was followed by a succession of single and multiple burials of bodies in both mortuary areas.” /+\

Community Buildings in Early Villages

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “At a number of Early Neolithic settlements we know of special purpose buildings, or community buildings; we may think of these buildings as scenarios for communal activities of some sort, and important for the community’s sense of identity. Çayönü, in southeast Turkey, had a succe sion of communal buildings at the centre of the site. Each was rectangular and each was different from the others. Although the houses were based on stone and mud foundations at ground level, the communal buildings seem to have preserved an ancient tradition of being at least partly cut into the ground. The most elaborate of the buildings, the socalled skull building, was repeatedly remodelled and rebuilt, but throughout its long life it had a series of stone-built cells below the floor level which were found to contain large quantities of human bone, and, in one of the cells, a careful arrangement of skulls at one side of the cell and long bones on the opposite side. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“Among the small buildings, at the centre of the early aceramic Neolithic settlement of Jerf el Ahmar, there was a succession of much larger, circular, subterranean structures, which the excavator, on the basis of her analysis of their features, fittings and lifehistory, has called “bâtiments communautaires”. The earliest of these is yet to be described and fully illustrated its successor is already well-documented. It was constructed in the cylinder were lined with two stone walls, the inner of which had vertical wooden posts set within it to support a flat roof. The walls projected above the then ground level. There was no staircase, so it must be supposed that entry was gained by means of a ladder from a doorway in the roof. Within the cavity there were seven cells arranged around about two thirds of the perimeter. Around the rest of the perimeter the floor was constructed as a low platform, separated into two segments; the floor of the central area was at a slightly lower level. None of the cells had interconnecting doorways; one cell, at the centre of the range of cells, had a small hole opening into the central area of the floor. The roof of this complex structure was deliberately dismantled and the structure itself was obliterated at the end of its use-life. The posts were pulled out, the roof was collapsed and burnt, and the cavity that remained was filled in. But the first act in this dramatic closure of the building was to place a human head in a corner, and a decapitated body with limbs spread-eagled in the centre of the floor. /+\

“The village shifted sideways over time, and another communal building was constructed at the centre of the village; it was similar to its predecessors in proportions and overall shape, but quite different in design and therefore how it functioned. Danielle Stordeur describes the earlier buildings as “polyvalent”, arguing that the cells may have been communal food storage facilities, while the building as a whole served as the arena for some kind of ceremonies. The new building was also circular in outline, subterranean, and roofed, but internally it was theatre-in-the-round. Six tree-trunk posts (fir trees from somewhere in the hills of southeastern Turkey, well to the north of Jerf el Ahmar) were set in a ring, and between each pair of posts a stone kerb was set to front a raised area all around the building. The kerb-stones were carved with pendant chevrons in raised relief; and each post had a deep collar made of plaster. Like its predecessors, this communal building was deliberately dismantled and obliterated at the end of its life.” /+\

Visualization of Banpo village in China

First Buildings: Community Centers Not Houses?

Michael Balter wrote in Science: “Nearly 12,000 years ago, the world’s first villages began to spring up in the Near East. Until recently, archaeologists assumed that the stone and mud-brick buildings that made up these small settlements were the houses of the first farmers, who had begun to give up the hunting and gathering lifestyle. But the discovery of a large, amphitheater-like building at a site in southern Jordan, reported today, adds to growing evidence that the earliest permanent buildings might not have been homes, but community centers. The find, researchers say, suggests that during the advent of agriculture—a pivotal turning point that prehistorians call the Neolithic Revolution—early farmers may have come together first to engage in communal activities, and only later did they begin living together. “This is definitely one of the most exciting discoveries in recent years associated with the [Neolithic] in the Near East,” says Nigel Goring-Morris, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. [Source: Michael Balter, Science, May 2, 2011 ~]

“Archaeologists have little doubt that the larger villages that crop up after about 10,000 years ago across the Near East—an area that includes modern-day Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and neighboring countries—were residential communities made up of individual family houses. At 9500-year-old Çatalhöyük in Turkey, for example, thousands of people lived in a tight, honeycomb-like cluster of mud-brick homes that they entered through holes in the roof, and hundreds of similar sites have been excavated across the region.~

“But the earliest Neolithic villages, which date to about 11,700 years ago, are much smaller, and include a variety of buildings of different sizes and shapes. At an 11,500 year old site called Jerf el Ahmar in Syria, for example, the entire community apparently used a number of structures, including storehouses and a circular building with a long bench. And at 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, researchers have argued that fantastic monolithic stone structures were part of a community ritual center. ~

“In a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by Bill Finlayson, director of the Council for British Research in the Levant in London and archaeologist Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, reports the discovery of a large, oval-shaped building at a site in southern Jordan called Wadi Faynan 16 (WF16). Early farmers lived here between between 11,600 and 10,200 years ago, cultivating wild plants such as wild barley, pistachio, and fig trees, and hunting or herding wild goats, cattle, and gazelle. ~

“The structure, designated building 075 was made of mud-brick, with a floor of mud plaster, and measures a whopping (by Neolithic standards) 22 by 19 meters. Its central area is surrounded by a long bench about a meter deep and half a meter high. In parts of the building, there is a second bench above the first one that forms an additional tier of seating. And along the southern side of the building, the lower bench is decorated with a wave pattern incised into the mud-brick. ~

“Thus the structure echoes the architecture of the Jerf el Ahmar community building — but building 075 is about three times larger. The building’s central area also contains a series of stone mortars set into plaster platforms on the floor, which may have been used to grind wild plants. The structure includes a number of post-holes, which the team thinks might have held up a roof that covered at least part of the building. The team also found two other, smaller structures nearby, which it interprets as storehouses for cereals and other food resources.

Map of Catalhoyuk excavation

“The three structures, the team reports, lie within a cluster of other buildings in a 1-hectare site. But none of these other buildings appear to be domestic houses either: Rather, they seem to have served as storehouses or workshops; one building contained green stone beads and seems to have specialized in their manufacture. Finlayson, Mithen, and their colleagues conclude that the evidence from WF16, combined with evidence from other sites, suggests that the earliest villages were not made up of houses, but rather communal structures where people came together to process their wild harvests and possibly also to engage in community performances. “These settlements appear to be all about community and not about emerging households,” the team writes, adding that this “ritualized community activity” might have helped to bring together the work force necessary to harvest the wild crops. ~

“The authors don't speculate on where the farmers lived, and there is no way to be sure. Researchers working at similar sites have surmised that they lived in small camps near the central site, but such open air habitations are very difficult to find and often leave little or no archaeological traces. Archaeologist Trevor Watkins, emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, says he “agrees strongly” with the authors’ conclusion that the social changes that took place during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming were at least as important as the later economic changes that led to full-blown domestication of plants and animals. But he thinks that it’s still possible that some of the other buildings at WF16 were used as domestic dwellings. Nevertheless, Watkins says, the communal activities at WF16 and other Neolithic sites probably created “powerful bonds of collective identity” in the earliest farmers that kept them together in stable societies “over many generations.” ~

Nested and Recursive Systems in Early Villages

Trevor Watkins of the University of Edinburgh wrote: “The essential cognitive and cultural faculties for the formation and maintenance of large, permanently co-resident communities were all in place around 12,000 years ago; some, like full modern language, had been in play for many tens of thousands of years, but others, in the hypothesis proposed here, were newly emergent, selected for by the requirements of long-term, large-scale community life. These cognitive and cultural faculties involve the ability to handle recursion within systems of symbolic representation. Linguists variously place the emergence of full modern language, whose distinctive characteristic is recursion, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, that is about half-way or three-quarters of the way through the time-span of our species, Homo sapiens. Written representations of language, the archetype of Merlin Donald’s systems of external symbolic storage, began to appear, also in southwest Asia, a ; but other, non-linguistic systems of external symbolic storage had been devised from around 10,000, the beginning of the Neolithic. [Source: Trevor Watkins, University of Edinburgh,“Household, Community and Social Landscape: Maintaining Social Memory in the Early Neolithic of Southwest Asia”, proceedings of the International Workshop, Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes II (14th –18th March 2011)” in Kiel January 2012 /+]

“Finally, I have implied that the intensity of performance, of re-working, re-modelling, re-plastering, re-building that is pervasive in the detail of the archaeological record is evidence of the essential process of performing the institutions of the community into existence, and of the acts of remembering that are essential to keeping collective memory alive. These actions, or performances, are carried out in their proper places, and they are repeatedly reenacted, thus giving a temporal dimension to those places. Ian Hodder and his colleagues have worked together to investigate the linking of domestic space and the many acts of daily practice with memory and the temporal dimension in the context of the houses at Çatalhöyük ( 2006; 2007;2004; 2010). Hodder himself has referred to the houses, particularly the larger, more elaborately furnished houses which served as the focus for burials as “memory houses”. /+\

Map of Dolni Vestonice

“And I set the emergence of the first, large, permanently co-resident communities in the context of long-term hominin evolution of “deep social structure”, where I suggest that it forms a critically important stage in the advanced development of “human societies as multilevel, nested structures of alliances”. This is how I answer the question that was posed half a century ago by Robert Braidwood, the question why the “Neolithic revolution” happened when it did, and not earlier (1962, 332). Braidwood was referring to the adoption of farming practices, but the question applies equally to the emergence of new, permanent communities. Braidwood’s prescient hunch was that perhaps culture was not ready. Kim Sterelny has recently written most interestingly and persuasively about the importance of scale and the cohesiveness of the human social network, or cultural niche; as he shows, scale and cohesiveness are important for the stable transmission of more, and more complex, cultural information, to allow a degree of specialization of skills, and to promote innovation, and the filtering, adoption and spread of desirable innovations ( 2011). I suggest that the scale of the settlements, with their implied populations, the increasing diversity of material culture, and the greater rates of cultural change that we see in the Epi-palaeolithic and the Early Neolithic are evidence of a step-change in human niche construction abilities. /+\

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Catalhoyuk map from makingmaps.com, Dolni Vestonice map from Donmaps.com and Banpo visualization from the Banpo tourism site

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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