Saturday, January 28, 2012

The uneasiness of a Neolithic monument

Why is it important that there is a neolithic monument, built 11,500 years ago at Gobukli Tepe in Turkey? As Elif Batuman explains ("The Sanctuary: The world's oldest temple and the dawn of civilization," The New Yorker, Dec. 19 & 26, 2012, at 72), the answer is that the people who built it were apparently hunter-gatherers. That means that hunter-gatherers could accumulate enough surplus food and assemble enough labor power to be able to afford the project, which presumably took years of mass effort to create. (76)

If that's right, then agriculture wasn't necessary to accumulation and social organization. In fact, studies of Neolithic and later skeletons suggest that hunter-gatherers were healthier and better fed than their agriculturalist successors. The people who built this monument are taller than the modern Turks who are excavating it. (80-81)

So why did people turn to agriculture? Batuman suggests that the answer is ideology: "The findings at Gobekli Tepe suggest ... that it was actually the need to build a sacred site that first obliged hunter-gatherers to organize themselves as a workforce, to spend long periods of time in one place, to secure a stable food supply, and eventually to invent agriculture." (73-74) If ideology (say, the exaltation of kings) calls for centralized, hierarchical life, agriculture supplies the economic framework. And this drive pushes people into the new social organization even at the cost of their own health. And, as an archaeologist spending his professional life excavating this site told Batuman, "Ninety percent had to work, and ten per cent lived by wealth. The elite wanted to keep their advantage, and they had the power to do it." (83)

There are other possibilities, surely. In the long run, worldwide, the turn to agriculture has supported a vast increase in the number of people who can live and (mostly, I hope) without the peril of starvation. To enable more of us to exist and prosper is, presumably, a net gain for the human race. Perhaps Neolithic people thought their own lives and those of their children would improve if they settled down to farm. If so, their hopes were misplaced for some thousands of years, and that misjudgment could have been an instance of false consciousness, another form of ideological oppression. But it could also have been just a mistake -- perhaps a cognitive error of some sort -- we certainly can't be sure!

Still, if we focus on Batuman's account, what is striking is that it is about as anti-Marxist as you can get. Control of the means of production doesn't shape the form of society. Rather, beliefs generate a form of society, and disposition of the means of production, to obey their commands. That reversal of the Marxian formula may say a lot about what drives our history, and our lives -- ideas first, perhaps, and objective conditions only second. That may be hopeful.

But it's fascinating that the author intersperses reporting on Neolithic life and archaeological investigation with comments on the discrimination against women in the area of Turkey where all this takes place. At least for me, unfamiliar with Turkish names, it only gradually becomes clear that the author is a woman.

But at that point her account of modern Turkey sheds a very bleak light on her archaeological story. Ideology and power drove the ancient societies of this region, and in a direction that made many of their lives worse. Ideology and power still drive modern society, and often still in directions that make our lives worse. Possibly the turn to agriculture was particularly bad for women, condemning them to rigid male rule and "more frequent, more debilitating pregnancies." (82) Again, we don't know. In the long run, I think we are all slowly becoming better off. But it's possible to wonder, in particular, just how much 11,500 years of history has done for at least one half of the human race: women.

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