Neolithic Era: Cosmic and Terrestrial Maintenance
By Sally Mallam
As the climate warmed, food sources became more plentiful and population numbers grew. An enormous communal effort and new inventions were required to assist and impress the spirit world to maintain cosmic and terrestrial harmony, and prevent a return of the perilous Ice Age. This effort shaped the Neolithic Revolution – the beginnings of organized religion, agriculture, and science. It created the first divine beings or gods and the many pre-Axial religious beliefs, and rituals associated with them, traces of which are evident to this day.
These became crucial questions. From then on it became important to appease the spirits to prevent a return to the blizzards, snow, ice and food scarcity. Now magic, ritual, and sacrifice are shared among thousands to invoke “Cosmic Maintenance.” An enormous communal effort was required to create new places to meet regularly to perform them.
Then it became necessary to feed the builders, craftsmen, and devotees and to ensure the availability of sacrificial offerings. This in turn gave rise to temporary and permanent settlements near the sacred sites, an advance in symbolic thought and the first gods, organized religion and a managerial religious elite, the domestication of plants and animals, and amazing feats of engineering.
The Neolithic Revolution – the change from hunter-gatherer to farming societies – seems to have happened in different places, in different ways. This is a very short overview of the findings from the Neolithic world in the Near and Middle East. Much remains still to be discovered.
Neolithic Religion: From the Caves to a New Tiered Cosmos
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.
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.
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 have been 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.
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.
A recent study suggests that one of the pillars may contain a record of a comet striking the earth about 10,950 BCE, an apocalyptic event that may have triggered the sudden “mini” ice age known as the Younger Dryas, leading to great loss of human life and the demise of the woolly mammoth.
A New Organizational Hierarchy
In order to accomplish this archaeological feat, an organizational hierarchy would have been imperative. Scholars speculate that an elite class of religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site. Shamans would still be looked to for guidance and from this already 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.
A New Symbolism and 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.
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 far as 100 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, almost 40 miles 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.
As archeologist Trevor Watkins writes “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.”
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