29 March, 2015

Excuse me, I think you have it the wrong way round!

Göbekli Tepe

According to the editorial in a recent New Scientist (3014), it seems that I am what it calls a "secularist", and one who invalidly imposes an economic imperative onto the evolution of mankind.

Whereas in the opinion of this editor the discoveries at Göbekli Tepe, along with more recent Mayan findings, "prove" that what we call civilisation was a direct result of changes in religion. In that very short piece absolutely zero reasons are provided as to why all the achievements of the Neolithic revolution - from Farming, Animal Husbandry, Pottery, Weaving, Writing and all the rest, could have come solely from some religious imperative. What rubbish!

Nobody can doubt that ancient hunter/gatherers would have had some sort of religion, and that such beliefs would have given them confidence when shared with others, certainly aiding their survival. But to make such a cerebral change the reason for the emergence of civilisation is actually laughable. In those days there were almost as many languages as there were tribes, so social belief systems across significant populations (religions) could not develop. And to say that such beliefs were the causes and mainsprings of civilisation, and the above-detailed revolution, is to say the least, amazingly ignorant of real processes of qualitative development. Something else was needed to make larger social groupings viable, in order for such things to develop.

Primarily you have to be able to explain why human beings could economically remain in one place, and not only survive, but actually prosper. The density of population possible with hunter/gatherers was very low indeed, for there simply wasn't enough food in any single place for a collection of peoples to settle. Exceptions to this norm did exist, but they were both rare and temporary. 


In the south of France following the last Ice Age, herds of animals moved north through a narrow valley to summer pastures and returned the same way in autumn. Here it was possible for hunter/gatherers to exploit this bounty and remain in one place and flourish. The cave paintings at Lascaux demonstrate this - an always-travelling group could never have achieved such a wealth of images in one place, they wouldn't have been anywhere long enough to develop such rituals.

But such things are not only exceptional cases, they never lead to the larger populations required for civilisation. When we address the development of mankind in general, we simply cannot establish such revolutionary changes, as are embodied in a universal concept like civilisation, upon such rare exceptions.

The gains had to be long-lasting, and in the modern parlance, sustainable

So, the only general explanation for static villages, and ultimately cities and civilisation, was agriculture. The most important settlements were always near rivers, allowing possible irrigation (or flooding), replenishing the fertility of the land. 

May I roundly condemn such an editorial in a supposedly scientific magazine as positively reactionary?! To say that religion lead to these developments is, at best, confusing cause and effect. This so-called "secularist" prefers his own, more accurate self-description - a scientist.

I have written about Göbekli Tepe before, as it is certainly a very important site in these matters. The piece appears in Special Issue 24 of Shape Journal and offers a critique of the philosophy and method of contemporary archaeologists who seem to have rejected an economic imperative for social development (see V. Gordon Childe) in exchange for a more idealistic, cultural cause.

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