SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 125 - February 2009

Neolithic communism

From Cayönü to Catalhöyük

By Bernhard Brosius

Reviewed by

Sascha Stanicic

LATE LAST year a new English-language website was launched, based on an already established German language site (‘ancient communism’), devoted to the archaeological material that continues to emerge on the earliest forms of human society. The main article, From Cayönü to Catalhöyük, by Bernhard Brosius, examines the archaeological findings of a form of society which existed for 3,000 years (around 7,000 to 4,000 BCE) in Anatolia and the Balkans, which without exaggeration can be called neolithic (new stone age) communism. It is fascinating reading for socialists.

Unique archaeological findings make it possible to reconstruct the way of life in these societies in the neolithic period – which stood at the beginning of the transition from nomadic hunter and gatherer cultures to sedentary societies which developed food production. Brosius explains how, in Cayönü in eastern Anatolia, through the discovery of different settlement layers, the technological progress can be understood: from living on the basis of hunting and gathering, via the first seeds, to the development of livestock breeding. The findings lead to the conclusion that the society which existed in Cayönü between 8,800 and 7,300 BCE was a hierarchical and patriarchical class society – the oldest known class society!

But different to other parts of the world, Cayönü saw an uprising, a social revolution against the exploitative structure of society. Out of this revolution an egalitarian form of society grew which spread from Anatolia to the Balkans and lasted for 3,000 years. Taking the 10,000-strong city of Catalhöyük as an example, Brosius explains in detail how the archaeological findings show that there were no classes, no exploitation, no war, and no discrimination against women.

The text explains how conclusions can be drawn for the structure of a given society, the way of living and working, and the relationship between the sexes, from the architecture, grave furnishings, consumer goods equipment, and the examination of skeletons.

The scientists who continue to study Catalhöyük are not socialists but have come to the conclusion that an egalitarian society or ‘a society with differences in ranks’ existed. The archaeologist, Naomi Hamilton, explains: "Differences do not necessarily mean structural inequality. Respect for age, hard-earned respect, social influence on the basis of experience and knowledge, do not contradict an egalitarian ethic". The discussion about the characterisation, a ‘society with different ranks’, rather seems to come from a lack of imagination that thousands of years ago there was a society that in terms of quality of life had something that was ahead of all following class societies. British archaeologist, James Mellaart, who discovered the first stone age settlement layers in Anatolia in 1958, comments: "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the people of Catal Hüyük did not see things in our way; they concentrated on… the continuity of life… and the way of achieving it. It seems that they understood… that ‘life must go on’, a fundamental truth which we tend to miss".

Part of the evidence for the absence of social differences is the uniform architecture in Catalhöyük. There were no palaces or temples, no big and pompous buildings or, on the other side, miserable housing. On the contrary, we see in Catalhöyük a peculiar architecture, in which all houses were basically designed in the same way. The people lived, cooked, worked, painted and buried their dead in the houses. The only difference between the houses suggests that this society did not know formal equality but social equality. The area of a house could be adjusted to the size of a family, with the result that every adult or two children had ten to twelve square metres at their disposal. If a family grew, the space of the house grew as well. Brosius concludes: "The ‘living houses’ of Catalhöyük show that the needs of the people were the socially binding basis of production".

The goods which have been found in all graves in Catalhöyük are all of such a fundamentally similar character that the conclusion is that not only were there no rich and poor but also no social differences between men and women. The fact that women also had tools as grave goods (and men had jewellery) leads to the conclusion that, as Brosius says, "there was a natural appreciation of women in the production of goods which leads to the assumption that the contradiction between production and reproduction did not exist in this society".

The examinations of the skeletons showed that there were no big differences between the men and women of Catalhöyük in nutrition, body size, lifestyle and other activities. There are no signs of a gender-based division of labour. The burial of men and women was similar. Not only was there no discrimination against one gender, it can be assumed that people were perceived as human beings and not defined as man or woman.

The excavations so far have not brought out any skeleton showing signs of violence by one person against another. There are no signs of the looting of graves, and no depictions of violence or aggression in their paintings. There are also no signs of ritual, religious sacrifice of human beings or animals. And there are no signs of war – and this for a period of 1,500 years in Anatolia and 2,500 years in the Balkans! Under capitalism, not a single day goes by without violence, murder and war. Instead of all this, Catalhöyük knew solidarity. There are signs that there was intensive care for ill and injured people, and there are even buildings which have been interpreted by the scientists as being hospitals.

Of course, Catalhöyük was poor in comparison to later societies and had a low level of technological development. But the social relations led to a higher quality of life than that which existed in societies with a higher technological development. Brosius, for example, gives the comparison with a city in the bronze age (from the third to the first millennium BCE) where the infant mortality was 30% higher than in Catalhöyük. In fact, generally, the average life expectancy of 32 years in Catalhöyük was only reached around 1750!

Even more important, the people in neolithic Catalhöyük were able to reduce their average working hours to less than half of their productive time. This they could then use for the production of consumer goods, painting, music – and for celebrations. Life was enjoyed in Catalhöyük and there were many celebrations and dances – which again surely strengthened the social cohesion of this society.

So, if today someone says that human beings are too bad for socialism the reply can be: look at Catalhöyük! The egalitarian form of society which lasted for more than 3,000 years in Anatolia and the Balkans shows that it does not lie in the nature of human beings to be greedy, to kill and oppress. This is a confirmation of the Marxist thesis that ‘conditions determine conciousness’. Capitalist conditions create the so-called ‘elbow mentality’ (hard competition), but also the realisation that the majority of people suffer under these conditions and that only collective resistance can change the conditions of life.

A similar conclusion must have been drawn by the neolithic revolutionaries before they wiped away the then existing class society 10,000 years ago and created their land of equality. With the technological potential of the 21st century, instead of the technology of the new stone age, a new Catalhöyük will give human beings the possibility to be human beings at last.


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