Neolithic Era: Replicating the Cave Experience
By Sally Mallam
Neolithic shamans no longer had to rely on the natural topography of each cave, but designed and built structures that repeated the cave experience. In their book Inside the Neolithic Mind, David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce assert that “In doing so they gained greater control over the cosmos and were able to ‘adjust’ beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs.”
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, some 3,000 years after the founding of Jericho, 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.
According to David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, “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.”
The Ice Age 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. Several significant figurines and wall paintings from this site are displayed in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.
Çatalhöyük: Transcendence through Death and Rebirth?
Hodder doesn’t think that Çatalhöyük was a matriarchal society, but notes, “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. As many as sixty skeletons have been found underneath some floors. 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.
Hodder says in The Leopard’s Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük “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.”
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