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Hunter, gatherer… architect? The discovery of huge temples thousands of years older than agriculture suggests that culture arose from spiritual hunger, not full bellies.

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Quote:WHEN Steven Mithen's team began to dig through the desert soil, his expectations were low. "We thought it was just a big rubbish dump," he says.

But as they dug through the detritus, one of his students came upon a polished, solid floor – hardly the kind of craftsmanship to waste on a communal tip. Then came a series of platforms engraved with wavy symbols. The excitement grew. "We were staggered day by day to find it getting larger, more complex, more peculiar," he says. "I'd never seen anything like it before. It was literally a moment when all your ideas change."

Whatever happened at the place now known as Wadi Faynan, the site could transform our understanding of the past. At 11,600 years old, it predates farming – which means that people were building amphitheatres before they invented agriculture.


The people who built Wadi Faynan were not nomads, but neither were they farmers. They probably relied almost exclusively on hunting and gathering.

Instead of agriculture, then, some very different motivations seem to have drawn these people together – things like religion, culture and feasting. Never mind the practical benefits of a steady food supply; the seeds of civilisation may have been sown by something much more cerebral.

For much of the 20th century our view of the Neolithic was seen through the lens of more recent social upheaval: the industrial revolution. The idea originated, in part, with Marxist archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe. Seeing the urban societies that had coalesced around factory towers and "dark satanic mills", Childe suspected that the first farms could have been similar hotbeds of rapid social and cultural change.


Klaus Schmidt set about scouring the surrounding countryside for further clues to the origins of this lost society. During this tour he found himself on a mound called Göbekli Tepe (modern southern Turkey).

"Along with the complex artwork and intricate ideology, this kind of development was supposed to come long after agriculture. Yet Schmidt failed to find any signs of farming. Stranger still, there is no sure evidence of any kind of permanent settlement at Göbekli Tepe.

Importantly, it was ideology, rather than farming, that was pulling these people together to form a larger society.

Indeed, it may have been the need to feed people at these kinds of gatherings that eventually led to agriculture – which turns the original idea of the Neolithic revolution on its head.


Some researchers are dubious. The original peoples' habit of periodically burying their sanctuaries means there is always the possibility that old remains were dug up to dump on the monuments, rather than contemporary debris. That would shave hundreds or thousands of years off the age of the temple, making it much less revolutionary.

Others doubt Schmidt's claims that Göbekli Tepe was the site of pilgrimage rather than a permanent settlement.


A little down the Euphrates, across the border into Syria, French researchers have found a trio of early Neolithic villages called Dja'De, Tell'Abr, and Jerf el-Ahmar.

They had begun to build their complex society long before they had domestic crops.


The "amphitheatre" at Wadi Faynan, Jordan, which Mithen first excavated in 2010, tells a similar story much further south.

Importantly, the remains are neatly layered, allowing the archaeologists to pin a firm date on the site – 11,600 years ago, right at the dawn of the Neolithic.


Around the banks of the Sea of Galilee in Israel and across the border in Jordan, archaeologists have unearthed the foundations of brushwood and mud huts dating from at least 20,000 years ago. From the scattering of plant remains, it seems these sites were occupied by many people, perhaps for long periods, suggesting they were already experimenting with new ways of living at this time.


"In a large group you need to establish a collective identity," explains Trevor Watkins at the University of Edinburgh – otherwise the meetings are volatile and soon break up. "And the way that works is through ceremonies, rituals, and symbols." So social gatherings can fuel cultural change.


So perhaps the Neolithic arose as communities and cultures evolved together through a self-perpetuating cycle.

Whatever they find, our views of the origin of civilisation – and of the modern world that we live in – will never be the same.

I tried to sum it up and highlight the crucial bits, but for those of you interested in the whole article, here it is.

And the complete excavation results and corresponding study by Steven J. Mithen, in pdf, suggesting that community takes precedence over economy, is available here.
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