An excerpt from the 'Differential development in the Neolithic' chapter in Trotsky in the Bronze Age by Dominic Alexander
Various forms of agriculture have been invented at multiple times and in many different regions in human history, but archeologically one of the best documented so-far is the Neolithic revolution in the ‘Fertile Crescent’, the region encompassing Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia and parts of Anatolia. It was from this region that a whole complex of technologies and social organisation spread outward, both eastwards and westwards.
Despite how often people have independently developed economies based upon the domestication of plants and animals, it is not agreed how and why this new way of life came about. Some archaeologists argue that it was the result of ‘ideological’ changes among the Mesolithic people of the Middle East. Leading evidence for this, according to one major authority, Steven Mithen, is Göbekli Tepe in today’s south-eastern Turkey, where people soon after 9600 BCE carved huge pillars out of the bedrock: ‘Many were 8 feet high and seven tons in weight. These were erected within circular structures that had been sunk into the hill to create what looked like cellars in the earth.’ The pillars were carved with faces of a myriad of wild animals. Construction of this site, ‘by people who relied entirely on wild game and plants for food,’ required ‘staggering’ amounts of labour by large numbers of people. It is thought that it must have been a ritual gathering place for many separate groups living in the larger area.
Now, notwithstanding the enigmatic cultural purposes behind these pillars, the notion that this shows an ‘ideological’ shift underpinning the origins of the Neolithic is surely wrongheaded. Instead, it seems to be a powerful demonstration that a major shift in social organisation was what had happened here; the ideological signs are the remains of a behavioural decision that was made to engage in more intensive and larger-scale social interactions between smaller groups. The appearance of such unprecedented concentrations of population is a widespread phenomenon of the Mesolithic, the period separating the Palaeolithic stage of hunter-gather life from the Neolithic invention of agriculture. The innovations which led to that new economic strategy were, perhaps, made possible by the combination of more concentrated populations in a varied and resource-rich region. However it is interpreted, the evidence certainly suggests that this revolution in humanity’s forces of production was a by-product of preceding changes in social relations.
One of the earliest known large-scale agricultural settlements is, famously, Jericho, although it is not definitely the most ancient. Its oldest iteration comes in 9600 BCE, with about fifty dwellings and over five hundred people living there, ‘perhaps the very first time in human history that a completely viable population was living in the same place at the same time.’ In a few hundred years, the population of the town grew to about a thousand.
Assumptions of social hierarchy
The assumptions made in interpreting the archaeology can sometimes overwhelm the available evidence in discussing sites such as Jericho. One pervasive premise behind much thinking about human society is that hierarchy and inequality are inevitable, natural and expected to appear in almost any historical circumstance. Another leading archaeologist, Barry Cunliffe, takes the view that ‘deep in the human psyche is a desire to gain honour and recognition through leadership’ and that ‘military and territorial adventures’ are a typical outlet for this. Hierarchy and exploitation are deep seated and inescapable in this view, to the point that an archaeologist can read all of pre-history through this lens.
When such ideas dominate thinking, class can be found where it does not belong. Thus, there is evidence in the early stages of Jericho of a central, communal storage building for grain; Mithen suggests, apparently without any supporting evidence, that this might have been meant that ‘the centralised storage of grain had allowed one individual or family to gain power by controlling its distribution to the community.’ This would be plausible if there was other evidence for a social hierarchy in the architecture, something approaching a proto-palace or temple, for example, but this does not appear to be the case. This really is an example of ideology determining social organisation, or rather the interpretation of past social organisation as it appears in the present class-ridden age.
Another very early site, Çayönü in eastern Anatolia, does exhibit a group of structures, with other supporting evidence including possible human sacrifice, indicating a ruling class, but these buildings were destroyed very suddenly, and a new, rather more egalitarian settlement appeared immediately afterwards. Otherwise, the early Neolithic provides abundant evidence that large-scale social organisation could be egalitarian in nature, and that class society, structural inequality and hierarchy were not in fact an inevitable consequence of the invention of agriculture. The city of Çatalhöyük, further west in southern Anatolia, is a particularly well researched example of a Neolithic settlement of about ten thousand people, with a singular architecture that demonstrates a pervasive egalitarianism. This extends to clear evidence of equality and similarity of work and status between men and women. The economy was partly agricultural, but hunting still played a significant role.
In this complex, there were no streets as such, let alone divisions between high status and low status buildings. Rather, living spaces were accessed through the roofs, with the individual houses built right onto each other. In effect, the tops of the buildings provided a communal space and walkways. Individual ‘units’ could be added to the mass as required, and varied obviously according to the requirements of family size. The construction of Çatalhöyük lies far outside our assumptions about what any concentrated settlement should look like, and is a demonstration that other forms of social organisation are possible. Notably also, there is no evidence for warfare in this period of the Anatolian Neolithic. All of this evidence together is a striking demonstration that exploitation and hierarchy are not inevitable in developed human cultures.
Agriculture and associated practices spread to Greece and the Balkans, and then later throughout Europe, but the kind of large towns or cities that can be found in the early Neolithic of the Fertile Crescent do not appear at the same early stages in these regions, or further west or north in Europe. A smaller village model of settlement had succeeded the earlier great population concentrations in the original heartlands, and it was that model which spreads westwards. Thus it was a quite different kind of social organisation that spread the technological package, than the one produced by the pioneering phase. The ‘stages’ by which the Neolithic developed in the Fertile Crescent were not reproduced in its expansion as a social system.
It is true that at every new geographical region, people had to adapt their practices to somewhat different ecological conditions, but it is notable that a more dispersed settlement pattern than that which held in such places as Jericho, Çayönü or Çatalhöyük was always the case, however much ecological variation there may have been. The reasons for this significant change in social organisation are not immediately obvious, and seem unlikely to be directly related to otherwise important technological changes, such as the invention of ceramics. It seems rather more likely that answers would be found if research focused on the contradictions of social relations in the development of Neolithic society, rather than seeking mono-causal explanations in geography, population, technology or ideology.
 Steven Mithen, After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC (London 2003), pp.65-7.
 Mithen, After the Ice, pp.58-9. Mithen seems to be disregarding evidence of even earlier settlements from eastern Anatolia (see note 21, below).
 Cunliffe, p.319.
 Ibid. p.64.
 Bernhard Brosius, ‘From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük: Emergence and development of an egalitarian society’ (Munich 2004)
 Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans: Themes and Variations: 9000 BC-AD 1000 (Yale University Press 2008), pp.97-8.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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