By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Göbekli Tepe revisited part one

The project of which this multi-part article is the result started during the first weeks in 2007 when it became clear that something about human societies has changed that previously had not been explained. Or as Raymond C. Kelly pointed out in “Warless Societies and the Origin of War” (2000), based on a logical principle that’s by no means natural or self-evident, which states that significant violence involves two teams, and any member of one team treats all members of the other as equal targets. Kelly calls this the principle of ‘social substitutability’ whereby one crucial factor would seem to be the gradual division of human societies into what is sometimes referred to as ‘culture areas’; that is, the process by which neighboring groups began defining themselves against each other and, typically, exaggerating their differences.

Predate Stonehenge by some 6,000 years Göbekli Tepe (Turkish: [gœbecˈli teˈpe] is a Neolithic archaeological site that comprises several large circular structures supported by massive stone pillars – the world’s oldest known megaliths. Many of these pillars are richly decorated with abstract anthropomorphic details, clothing, and reliefs of wild animals, providing archaeologists with rare insights into prehistoric religion and the particular iconography of the period. 

One of the reasons why back in January 2007, no final conclusions could be made is that even today, only 5% of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated.

But as we already had seen earlier, despite the fantasies of earlier writers about Archeology in Mesopotamia, it is notoriously hard to find palaces in the usual sense of the word.

What furthermore was clear from what had been found by early 2007 is that war did not become a constant of human life after the adoption of farming; indeed, long periods exist in which it appears to have been successfully abolished. Yet, it had a stubborn tendency to reappear if only many generations later.

A mistake to begin answering such questions by assuming that these ancient polities were simply archaic versions of our modern states. As we know it today, the state results from a distinct combination of elements – sovereignty, bureaucracy, and a competitive political field – which has entirely separate origins. Our thought experiment showed how those elements map directly onto primary forms of social power, which can operate at any scale of human interaction, from the family or household up to the Roman Empire or the super-kingdom Tawantinsuyu. Sovereignty, bureaucracy, and politics are magnifications of elementary types of domination, grounded in the use of violence, knowledge, and charisma.

·         Many smaller rectangular buildings.

·         Quarries.

·         Stone-cut cisterns from the Neolithic.

As pointed out at the time, the mega-sites of Ukraine and adjoining regions were inhabited from roughly 4100 to 3300 BC, for something in the order of eight centuries, which is considerably longer than most subsequent urban traditions. Why were they there at all? Like Mesopotamia and the Indus valley, they appear to have been born of ecological opportunism in the middle phase of the Holocene. Not floodplain dynamics, in this case, but processes of soil formation on the flatlands north of the Black Sea.

What was evident at the time was the surprisingly common pattern of a dramatic increase in the scale of organized human settlement taking place with no resulting concentration of wealth or power in the hands of ruling elites. In short, archaeological research has shifted the burden of proof onto those theorists who claim causal connections between the origins of cities and what until then, if not also say today, was a common belief, the rise of stratified states.

Hence a dramatic increase in the scale of organized human settlement took place with no resulting concentration of wealth or power in the hands of ruling elites. In short, archaeological research has shifted the burden of proof onto those theorists who claim causal connections between the origins of cities and the rise of stratified states and whose claims now look increasingly hollow.

It seems unlikely that they did not have their share of upheavals, transformations, and constitutional crises. In some cases, we can be confident they did. At Mohenjo-Daro, for instance, we know that roughly 200 years before the city’s demise, the Great Bath had already fallen into disrepair. Industrial facilities and ordinary residences crept beyond the Lower Town, onto the Upper Citadel, and even the site of the Bath itself.

Within the Lower Town, we now find buildings of truly palatial dimensions with attached craft workshops.1 This ‘other’ Mohenjo-Daro existed for generations and seems to represent a self-conscious project of transforming the city’s (by then centuries-old) hierarchy into something else – though archaeologists have yet to fathom quite what that other thing was supposed to be.2

Like the Ukrainian cities, those of the Indus were eventually abandoned entirely, replaced by societies of much smaller scale where heroic aristocrats held sway. In Mesopotamian cities, palaces finally appeared. Overall, history is progressing in an authoritarian direction. By the time we have written records, lords and kings and would-be world emperors have popped up almost everywhere. Still, rushing to this conclusion would be unwise. Dramatic reversals have sometimes taken place in the other direction  – for instance, in China. 

In China, archaeology has opened a yawning chasm between the birth of cities and the appearance of the earliest named royal dynasty, the Shang. Since the early twentieth-century discovery of inscribed oracle bones at Anyang in the north-central province of Henan, political history in China has started with the Shang rulers, who came to power around 1200 BC.3 Until quite recently, Shang civilization was thought to be a fusion of earlier urban (‘Erligang’ and ‘Erlitou’) and aristocratic or ‘nomadic’ elements, the latter taking the form of bronze casting techniques, new types of weaponry, and horse-drawn chariots first developed on the Inner Asian steppe, home to a series of powerful and highly mobile societies which played so much havoc with later Chinese history.4

Before the Shang, nothing exciting was supposed to have happened – just a few decades ago, textbooks on early China presented a long series of ‘Neolithic’ cultures receding into the distant past, defined by technological trends in farming and stylistic changes in regional traditions of pottery and the design of ritual jades. The underlying assumption was that these were pretty much the same as Neolithic farmers were imagined to be anywhere else: living in villages, developing embryonic forms of social inequality, preparing the way for the sudden leap that would bring the rise of cities and, with cities, the first dynastic states and empires. But we now know this is not what happened at all. 

Today, archaeologists in China speak of a ‘Late Neolithic’ or ‘Longshan’ period marked by what can be described, without equivocation, like cities. By 2600 BC, we find a spread of settlements surrounded by rammed earth walls across the entire valley of the Yellow River, from the coastal margins of Shandong to the mountains of southern Shanxi. They range in size from centers of more than 300 hectares to tiny principalities, little more than villages but still fortified.5 The major demographic hubs lay far away, on the lower reaches of the Yellow River to the east; also to the west of Henan, in the Fen River valley of Shanxi province; and in the Liangzhu culture of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang.6 

Many of the largest Neolithic cities contain cemeteries, where individual burials hold tens or even hundreds of carved ritual jades. These may be badges of office, or perhaps a form of ritual currency: in ancestral rites, the stacking and combination of such jades, often insignificant number, allowed rank differences to be measured along a standard scale of value, spanning the living and the dead. Accommodating such finds in the annals of written Chinese history proved an uncomfortable task since we are speaking of a long and tumultuous epoch that just wasn’t supposed to have happened.7

The problem is not merely one of time but also of space. Astonishingly, some of the most striking ‘Neolithic’ leaps towards urban life are now known to have taken place in the far north, on the frontier with Mongolia. From the perspective of later Chinese empires (and the historians who described them), these regions were already halfway to ‘nomad barbarian and would eventually go beyond the Great Wall. Nobody expected archaeologists to find there, of all places, a 4,000-year-old city, extending over 400 hectares, with a great stone wall enclosing palaces and a step-pyramid, lording it over a subservient rural hinterland nearly 1,000 years pre-Shang.

The excavations at Shimao, on the Tuwei River, have revealed all this, along with abundant evidence for sophisticated crafts – including bone-working and bronze-casting – and warfare, including the mass killing and burial of captives, in around 2000 BC.8 Here, we sense a much livelier political scene than was ever imagined in the annals of later courtly tradition. Some of it had a grisly aspect, including the decapitation of captured foes and the burial of some thousands of ancestral jade axes and scepters in cracks between great stone blocks of the city wall, not to be found or seen again until the prying eyes of archaeologists uncovered them over four millennia later. All this likely intention was to disrupt, demoralize, and delegitimize rival lineages (‘all in all, you’re just another jade in the wall’).

At the site of Taosi – contemporary with Shimao, but located far to the south in the Jinnan basin – we find a rather different story. Between 2300 and 1800 BC, Taosi went through three phases of expansion. First, a fortified town of sixty hectares arose on the ruins of a village, expanding subsequently to a city of 300 hectares. In these early and middle periods, Taosi presents evidence for social stratification almost as dramatic as what we see at Shimao, or indeed what we might expect of a later imperial Chinese capital. There were massive enclosure walls, road systems, and large, protected storage areas; rigid segregation between commoner and elite quarters, with craft workshops and a calendrical monument clustered around what was most likely some palace.

Taosi contained an astronomical observatory, the oldest in East Asia. Archaeologists discovered a Middle Taosi period semi-round foundation just beside the southern wall of the Middle Taosi enclosure, which could be used for astronomical observations. The structure consists of an outer semi-ring-shaped path and a semi-round rammed-earth platform with about 60 m. The platform is 42m in diameter and over 1000 sq m in area. Map of the Observatory at Taosi:

Burials in the early town cemetery of Taosi fell into clearly distinct social classes. Commoner tombs were modest; elite tombs were full of hundreds of lacquered vessels, ceremonial jade axes, and remains of extravagant pork feasts. Then suddenly, around 2000 BC, everything seems to change. As the excavator describes it:

The city wall was razed flat, and the original functional divisions were destroyed, resulting in a lack of spatial regulation. Commoners’ residential areas now covered almost the entire site, even reaching beyond the boundaries of the middle-period large city wall. The size of the city became even larger, reaching a total area of 300 hectares. In addition, the ritual area in the south was abandoned. The former palace area now included a poor-quality rammed-earth foundation of about 2,000 square meters, surrounded by trash pits used by relatively low-status people. Stone tool workshops occupied what had been the lower-level elite residential area. The city had lost its status as a capital and was in a state of anarchy.9

What’s more, there are clues that this was a conscious process of transformation, most likely involving a significant degree of violence. Commoner graves burst in on the elite cemetery. In the palace district, a mass burial, with signs of torture and grotesque violations of the corpses, appears to be evidence for what the excavator describes as an ‘act of political retribution.

It is considered wrong to question an excavator’s first-hand judgment about a site, but we cannot resist a couple of observations. First, the ostensible ‘state of anarchy’ (elsewhere described as ‘collapse and chaos’) lasted for a considerable period, between two and three centuries. Second, the overall size of Taosi during the latter period grew from 280 to 300 hectares. This sounds a lot less like collapse than the age of widespread prosperity following the abolition of a rigid class system. It suggests that after the palace’s destruction, people did not fall into a Hobbesian ’war of all against all’ but got on with their lives – presumably under what they considered a more equitable system of local self-governance.

Here, on the banks of the Fen River, we might conceivably be in the presence of evidence for the world’s first documented social revolution, or at least the first in an urban setting. Other interpretations are no doubt possible. But at the very least, the case of Taosi invites us to consider the world’s earliest cities as places of self-conscious social experimentation, where very different visions of what a city could be like might clash – sometimes peacefully, sometimes erupting in bursts of extraordinary violence. Increasing the number of people living in one place may vastly increase the range of social possibilities, but in no sense does it predetermine which of those possibilities will ultimately be realized.

Yet – urban revolutions of the political kind – may well be a lot more common in human history than we tend to think. Again, we may never be able fully to reconstruct the unwritten constitutions of the earliest cities to appear in various parts of the world, or the reforms underwent in their first centuries. Still, we can no longer doubt that these existed.

In the case of W.Europe Harald Haarmann in his 2011 published book titled: Das Rätsel der Donauzivilisation – Die Entdeckung der ältesten Hochkultur writes that there had been contact and circulation over the still intact isthmus between Europe and Asia Minor.

Haarmann is in favor of the idea that the contacts between the expanding Neolithic farmers and the local Mesolithics were dominantly peaceful which would account for the fact that the spreading of the agrarian know-how could be done by colonization proper as well as by transfer of ideas. 

Analysis of the proportion of immature skeletons recovered from European prehistoric cemeteries has shown that the transition to agriculture after 9000 BC triggered a long-term increase in human fertility.

On the Black sea shore between Varna and Danube delta and the eastern Balkan mountain, the region flourished economically during the second half of the fifth millennium BC, based on metallurgical development and intense commercial relationships.

The lake settlements around Varna lake were the center of the region. The tombs in the Varna necropolis illustrate various social differences in material terms of buried people. Most probably this is due to the rise of social classes among the local population.

The “Varna gold,” as it’s known among archaeologists, has upended long-held notions about prehistoric societies. According to radiocarbon dating, the artifacts from the cemetery are 6,500 years old, meaning they were created only a few centuries after the first migrant farmers moved into Europe. Yet archaeologists found the riches in just a handful of graves, making them the first evidence of social hierarchies in the historical record.


1. On this, see Gregory L. Possehl, The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective, 2002, and M. Vidale, ‘Aspects of Palace life at Mohenjo-Daro.’ South Asian Studies 26 (1): 59–76, 2010.

2. Independent cities were only entirely abolished in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as part of the creation of the modern nation state. European empires, and the creation of the modern interstate system in the twentieth century, succeeded in wiping out any traces of them in other parts of the world. 

3. Robert Bagley, ‘Shang archaeology.’ In Loewe and Shaughnessy (eds),1999, pp. 124–231.

4. See Kyle Steinke and Dora C. Y. Ching (eds). Art and Archaeology of the Erligang Civilization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2014.

5. As described by Li Liu, The Archaeology of China: From The Late Paleolithic To The Early Bronze Age (Cambridge World Archaeology), 2012, p. 222, Liu also points out that some of the smallest are in Henan itself, the heartland of the later named dynasties. The town of Wangchenggang, associated with the Xia Dynasty – the semi-legendary precursor to the Shang – has a total walled area of around thirty hectares.

6. Colin Renfrew and Bin Liu, The emergence of complex society in China: the case of Liangzhu, 2018, see also the case of Liangzhu.’ Antiquity 92 (364): 975–90.

7. Kwang-chih Chang, 1999 ‘China on the eve of the historical period.’ In Loewe and Shaughnessy (eds),1999, pp. 37–73 They also describe how some scholars initially suggested that the Longshan period was an age of high shamanism, an appeal to the later myth of Pan Gu, who prised heaven and earth apart in such a way that only those with spiritual powers could journey between them. Others at first related it to classical legends of wan guo, the period of Ten Thousand States before power was localized to the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.

8. See Jaang et al. 2018.

9. Nu He, ‘The Longshan period site of Taosi in Southern Shanxi Province.’ In A. P. Underhill (ed.), A Companion to Chinese Archaeology. Chichester: Wiley, 2013, pp. 255–78, 269. 


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