The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought

The Neolithic Era

Pages 12

10,700 - 3000 BCE

Imagine how different the Neolithic world would seem from the stories told and passed on by the elders of life in the Ice Age. Rich in wild grasses and game, it was now often pleasant to leave cave and rock shelters and gather outside; to sit and look across grasslands where animals grazed in their thousands, or to gaze up to the luminous night sky. In this land of plenty, the relatively easy life of the forager became possible. But how long would it last? And how do we maintain it? These became crucial questions.

They were questions that became more and more relevant as people changed from foraging to farming and as populations increased. During this period it does seem that for the first time we began to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world which is sometimes in opposition to us and which we need to control. From now on it becomes important to appease the spirits, for only by doing so could people safeguard against a return to blizzards, snow, ice, and food scarcity.

As we shall see, an enormous communal effort was required to impress these invisible beings, an effort that shaped the beginnings of organized religion, and created the first divine beings or gods. Now magic and ritual are shared among thousands to invoke “Cosmic Maintenance.” The collaboration from the unknown worlds to ensure and improve survival in the known world becomes the new way to understand and think about solutions to problems of survival. It would evolve the many pre-Axial religious beliefs, and the rituals associated with them, some of which are evident to this day.

Map of neolithic sites in Turkey
Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent area.

Approximately 11,500 years ago, towards the end of the last Ice Age as the weather became warmer, some of our early ancestors in the northern region of what we now know as the Fertile Crescent began to move their places of religious ritual beyond the cave and rock walls. Göbekli Tepe is the first evidence to date of this transition. This extraordinary man-made place of worship heralds a new period of creative expression we know as the Neolithic (“new stone”) era.

Göbekli Tepe (“Hill of the Navel”) in Southeastern Turkey was erected by hunter-gatherers in 9600-8200 BCE (ca. 11,500 years ago).
Klaus Schmidt, of the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul, says that once the pillars stood on the hillside “like a meeting of stone beings.”

11,000 years ago, that is 7,000 years before Stonehenge, our ancestors, using only flint tools, carved massive pillars from a limestone quarry, then transported them as far as a quarter of a mile without the aid of wheels or beasts of burden. The tallest of these pillars are 18 - 20 feet in height and weigh up to 50 tons!

Each pillar is shaped like a stylized human being: its “head” like a capital T. Some have relief carvings on their “bodies” indicating arms, hands, belts and animal skin loin-cloths, others are decorated with animals then native to the area: bulls, foxes, cranes, lions, ducks, scorpions, ants, spiders, and snakes.

Gobekli Tepe under excavation
Göbekli Tepe, near Urfa, south-east Turkey, showing one of the large,
circular, subterranean structures under excavation.

The pillars were erected to form circular or oval shapes ranging from 30 to 100 feet in diameter, each pillar standing an arm span or more apart connected to the next by a stone wall; two larger pillars stand within the center. Scholars feel sure these structures originally supported domed roofs; their semi-sunken pillars are load bearing and, left uncovered, limestone would too easily have been damaged from rain and wind.

What was the Neolithic Revolution?

map with Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe and other recently excavated sites in the Near East lead scholars to question the long-standing idea of the Neolithic Revolution, a concept invented by V. Gordon Childe back in the 1920s which claimed that agriculture, stimulated by population growth, gave rise to organized religion. Scholars surmised that the earliest monumental architecture was possible only after agriculture provided Neolithic people with food surpluses, freeing them from a constant focus on day-to-day survival. Instead these amazing sites lead them to conclude that the reverse was also true: the transformation to organized regional religion gave rise to farming. “Communal ceremonies come first,” says Ian Hodder an archeologist working at Çatalhüyük. “That pulls people together.”

12,000 years ago, the first farmers were able to sustain the large community who built Göbekli Tepe thanks to a genetic variation in Einkorn wheat:

We think these structures were created to establish connection and transition to the Spirit Worlds.

Gobekli Tepe Stone Pillars
The animal images recall Paleolithic cave paintings and most probably do reflect hunter-gatherer religion
and beliefs in the animal-spirit world. They include vultures and fantastic creatures such as a lizard or a frog
with bared teeth.

Images were by now probably understood in a more iconographic way, reminding participants of the stories and myths of the time, as a totem might, or as a statue does in a modern church or temple. Sites as much as a hundred miles away shared this same imagery and more than likely people shared the same stories and religious ideas associated with it. Smaller but similar pillars with the same imagery, dating just after Göbekli Tepe were found at Nevali Çori, a settlement 20 miles away. Karahan Tepe, 63 kilometres east of Urfa in the Tektek Mountains, is a similar site that has as yet to be explored. Dated c. 9500 - 9000 BCE, it has a number of T-pillars as well as high reliefs of a winding snake and other carvings similar to those at Göbekli Tepe. 

Life after death – burial chambers?

Graves were discovered at Nevali Çori, and the archaeologist Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute of Istanbul, who has been working with his team at Göbekli Tepe for over fifteen years, is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers. His team has already found fragments of human bone in the layers of dirt that filled the complex. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.

Perhaps this functioned as the burial ground for the priesthood. It is the custom of shamanic societies to bury their elders and Shamans in ground already made holy or sacred by the ritual practices that had previously gone on there, even led at one time by the person buried there.

A new tiered cosmos?

From the archeological evidence it seems that under these new climatic circumstances, hunter-gatherers gradually moved their places of ritual and initiation, from deep inside almost inaccessible caves, to the world outside.  As foragers, their population may well have increased to a size that eventually made a more hierarchical organization imperative. Shamans would still be looked to for guidance and from this already somewhat elevated position they were perhaps able to take control. As community leaders, a priesthood of sorts, they would command the numbers of people needed to initiate this transformation: to create a new tiered cosmos beyond the cave walls.

The first gods?

Scholars such as the French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin suggest that the massive pillar structures mark a “revolution of Symbols” – a “psycho-cultural” change enabling the imagination of a structured cosmos and supernatural world in symbolic form. Perhaps, for the first time, human beings imagine gods, supernatural beings resembling humans that exist in the other worlds.

The first organized religion?

In order to accomplish this archaeological feat, a level or organization and a hierarchy would have been necessary. Specialist stoneworkers must have worked these pillars. Scholars speculate that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site.

We know, through ground penetrating radar, that there are 20 of these enclosures, so there had to have been some form of social hierarchical organization since an estimated 500 people would have been required to move one pillar, and many more to accomplish all the construction and embellishments and attend to the crowds the site attracted. These buildings would have been visible from a very long distance away yet there is no sign of habitation, so it seems certain that this was a meeting place used for religious and ceremonial purposes only. From the many animal bones that Schmidt and his team have found, it seems likely that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe they made animal sacrifices. More recently, freestanding sculptures of animals have been found within the circles, a statue of a human and sculptures of a vulture's head and a boar have also been excavated.

After the hunter-gatherers finished building, they and others probably congregated for worship, funerals and initiations. To feed everyone they would initially have gathered and brought in wild grains and grasses. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of domestic wheat, grows wild in the region and scholars suggest that some of the grain might well have fallen along the way as people travelled there year after year. Once it grew it was picked and eventually became domesticated.

People of the Neolithic world now needed to relate to a comparatively large community, among whom they lived all the time. So they now found a way to systematize their animistic world developing a powerful symbolism that, although it signified abstract and supernatural concepts, was easy to remember and easy to transmit.

 “Cosmic Maintenance”?

It is possible that hunter gatherers, who were now able to gather in larger numbers, erected these initiatory sites to perform multiple ceremonies: of birth, initiation to adulthood, burial, ancestor veneration and shamanism; and perhaps also to ensure – through ritual, magic, and sacrifice – the collaboration of the spirit world and of their newly conceived gods of nature: the sun, wind, rain and soil. This was a new world of comparative plenty and they needed the help of the gods to maintain it.

Gobekli Tepe
Göbekli Tepe

As more and more land around the temple was farmed to exhaustion and laid waste, it may well be that this caused the site's eventual demise. In 8,000 BCE, during this shift to agriculture, Göbekli Tepe was buried, according to Schmidt, “deliberately – not in a mudslide. For some reason the hunters, or the ex-hunters, decided to entomb the entire site in soil. The earth we are removing from the stones was put here by man himself: all these hills are artificial.”

The Neolithic Shamans no longer had to rely on the natural topography of each cave, but designed and built their own structures, repeating the cave experience. “In doing so they gained greater control over the cosmos and were able to ‘adjust’ beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs.” (Inside the Neolithic Mind, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce)

Visit: and for more on Göbekli Tepe.

Elevation map of Çatalhöyük
Elevation map of Çatalhöyük Southern Anatolia,
Turkey. Partial excavations of this mud ‘town’ in
the 1960s revealed 14 building levels dating
between 7250 - 6250 BCE. (Original drawing by Nadine
Grosgurin, from Çatalhöyük, Ed. Tallandier, 1971.)

The limestone caves in the Taurus Mountains of southern Turkey were thought to have been the initial homes of a hunter-gatherer society who, once the weather improved, moved about two day’s journey away. There they built a Neolithic settlement known as Çatalhöyük. Over the span of 1,000 years people continuously inhabited the site, rebuilding their houses atop one another, creating a mound (“hoyuk”) some sixty feet high.

Çatalhöyük once accommodated an average of 6,000 - 8,000 people. Not surprisingly people built homes reminiscent of their caves, creating spaces of symbolic architecture which still reflected their close connection to a three-tiered cosmos and spirit world. 

Honey-combed rectangular houses of mud brick were joined together by common walls, their flat roofs providing walkways and an area where, when weather permitted, much of daily life took place. Access to each home was via a ladder through its ceiling from an open roof-entrance. Once inside, moving between rooms was possible only via small openings 28 - 30 inches high, so people were obliged to crawl or bend low in order to move deeper into the structure.

“In effect, the roofs of the town created a new land surface, probably, we argue, a replication of the cosmological level on which people lived their daily lives. … descent, limited light and the need to crawl through small openings between chambers are akin to the experience of moving through limestone caves. … The cosmos and its animals were embedded in the house.” (Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce.)

The Shamans of Altamira or Lascaux used their caves’ natural shapes to create three-dimensional spirit bison or horses that float in and out of cave walls, moving in torchlight with a multitude of man-animal-spirits and animal-spirits. Here in Çatalhöyük, three dimensional forms – bulls’ heads, wild rams’ heads, breast-like shapes and leopards – loom out into the room, creating a focal point, an altar where the act of worship is apparent.

wall painting at Catalhoyuk
From a wall painting at Çatalhöyük depicting many human figures grouped around a wild bull. This man carries a bow and possibly wears a leopard skin at his waist, which is flying as he runs – or is he perhaps imbued with the power of the leopard, or both?

Indeed many of the rooms so far discovered are shrines. Their walls are painted with striking imagery: a giant bull surrounded by diminutive human beings, a sprinting figure wearing leopard skin, or vultures with wings expanded and the corpses around them headless. These images were often repeatedly plastered over and recreated in a way that appears to emphasize the act of image making. Perhaps, like their Paleolithic ancestors, these people still saw the creative act as as a way to transcend to the spirit world through the permeable membrane of walls that stood between not only spaces but states of being. The anthropologist Maurice Bloc noted that many of the images are violent and favor powerful animals; or birds that symbolize transmigration. It’s as if the transition to a new stage or state was experienced as violent but necessary; it suggests that through death and rebirth, it was possible to see oneself and others as part of something permanent and life-transcending.

Statue of a woman sitting flanked by big cats
Among the statuary discovered are many female images that may remind us of Paleolithic venus figurines. Perhaps a goddess of fertility or particularly of grain. The figure left, seated between two felines, was found buried in a grain bin which stored crops.

Archeologist Ian Hodder doesn't think that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society, “There was a balance of power. If one’s social status was of high importance in Çatalhöyük, the body and head were separated after death. The number of female and male skulls found during the excavations is almost equal.”

Ancestors were obviously highly valued. Floors inside the dwellings are subdivided into discrete levels or platforms and, like the artificial wall columns, were often painted in symbolic red ochre. Sometimes up to sixty skeletons have been found underneath a floor. Bodies were flexed before burial, and often placed in baskets or wrapped in reed mats. Disarticulated bones in some graves suggest that some corpses were left in the open air for a time before the bones were gathered and buried. In some cases, graves were disturbed and the individual’s head removed from the skeleton and subsequently used in ritual. Some skulls were plastered and painted with ochre to recreate human-like faces, a custom also seen in Neolithic sites in Syria and at Neolithic Jericho.

“The ability of the shaman or ritual leader to go beyond death and return gives a special status, and would be especially important in a society in which the ancestors had so much social importance. By going down into a deep room in which the dead were buried, the ritual leaders could travel to the ancestors through the walls, niches and floors.” (The Leopard’s Tale, Ian Hodder)

Burial Rites

Early Neolithic burial practices seem to indicate a belief in the spiritual presence and influence of deceased members of one’s group. At Tell Qaramel in northern Syria, one of the oldest known settlements (ca. 11,000 - 9650 BCE), skulls were found either in groups or alone, some plastered with clay to recreate the face, which was then painted skin-color and placed in a specific area, presumably for veneration or at least remembrance. Bodies were buried in the flex in-utero position perhaps ready to be born anew in the spirit world. Children who died young were buried intact, which leads scholars to think that adult brains may well have been eaten at death as a way to pass on the deceased’s essential qualities to the living.

Sculpted sculls from Jericho
Early Portraiture? Two examples of sculpted human skulls from
Jericho ca. 6000 BCE.

Jericho was originally founded by sedentary foragers/collectors in the Natufian Period some 12,800 - 10,500 years ago, predating Çatalhöyük by 3,000 years. Excavations revealed sometimes up to nine human skulls buried beneath the floor of these Neolithic houses. Their faces were modeled in plaster often with inset cowrie shells for eyes and painted representations of hair and other facial features. Plastered skulls were also found at other sites, for example in Kfar HaHoresh in the Nazareth Hills of Lower Galilee in Israel and in Beidha, near Petra in Jordan.

Skulls from Tel Aswad
Skulls from Tell Aswad, a late eighth-millennium BCE settlement in southern Syria. A large hollow has been
'dedicated' for use as a burial place by the deposition of a cluster of human skulls. The facial
features are modeled in clay and colored; some have a black line (eye-lashes) across the closed eyelids.

Clay figurines with staring eyes
Some of the 32 clay figure statues from 'Ain Ghazal, Jordan, 6750 - 6570 BCE. Found in specially dug pits beneath the floors of houses, each is about 3 ft. tall and could stand up. With their staring eyes outlined with bitumen they suggest supernatural ‘seeing.’
Jerf el Ahmar, an early Neolithic settlement in north Syria
Jerf el Ahmar, an early Neolithic settlement in north
Syria. The earliest of three successively buried
‘community buildings,’ which the excavator suggests
was used both as a granary and for ceremonies. At
the end of its use-life, a headless corpse (highlighted)
was placed in the centre of the floor, the posts and roof
were burnt, and the cavity was filled in.

This is a very short overview of the findings from the Neolithic world in the Near and Middle East; and much remains still to be discovered. In this new agrarian world families became larger as many hands were needed to plant, harvest crops and take care of livestock.

Both organized religion and agriculture encouraged humans to settle in large, concentrated communities, villages and towns. As land became exhausted people were obliged to move to newer pastures. Now they could travel not only with the families but taking their animals, and, most importantly for us, their customs and beliefs with them. Some moved westwards, settling in what we now know as Europe, around the Danube; others south-west to Italy and surrounding areas. About 4500 BCE they arrived in Brittany, western Portugal, and Holland eventually journeying on by sea to Britain and Ireland.

The great advantage of all this symbolic reference through physical artefacts was that, unlike speech, dance or ritual enactment, which is transient, the physical symbolism with which they surrounded themselves was always there, always reminding them, teaching their children. They had learned what the psychologist Merlin Donald (1991, 1998) has called ‘external symbolic storage’ … . Above all, these ideas about their world were systematic, categorical, discriminating, ordered.

Such a systematic and symbolically rich world-view was ideal for providing the cultural underpinning that could be shared by all those in the community, for they lived in and by and through the symbolic references in their settlements. And finally, such a systematic and readily symbolised world-view was infectious, readily communicated and easily learned by others who had the same cognitive skills and the same need to cope with their new way of living.

(The Neolithic revolution and the emergence of humanity: a cognitive approach to the first comprehensive world-view, a paper by Trevor Watkins.)

Evidence of a Long Journey

The many megaliths help us trace our ancestor’s voyage westwards. Like Göbekli Tepe and other earlier sites, these were created not for domestic but for religious purposes. These gigantic structures are thought to be predominantly burial places, perhaps for the most celebrated members of a family or farming community.

standing stone
A Menhir is a standing stone (left). Sometimes it stood alone and sometimes in rows, such as at Carnac in Brittany. The menhirs were perhaps set up not only for burial, but to honor a major action by a leader, as a lasting memorial of his victory, for example.
The Dolmen was a structure like a ‘table’ of stones created by a capstone – weighing up to 50 tons – on top of three or four standing stones. The structure would then be buried, creating an artificial cave.
Stone passage
"Passage Graves" (above, right) is the name archeologists give to a structure created by a Dolmen with a passageway towards it built of standing stones and capstones. These would also be buried. There are “Gallery Graves” of the same structures without the Dolmen.

Farmers now needed to own the land they worked, so burial places for their ancestors, with large structures not only honoring them but indicating: “this land is ours, our ancestors are here too, and we will protect it” would establish their presence. The dead were now regularly buried along with the everyday things they had used in life, ornaments, weapons, pottery, etc., that presumably might be needed in the next world.

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