The Neolithic World

Around 20,000 BCE the Earth began to get dramatically colder (see last glacial period). By 16,000 BCE Europe was almost completely covered with a sheet of ice, which resulted in the extinction of all human life on the continent. It would not be until about 10,000 BCE that climatic conditions would again allow humans, who migrated from areas furthur to the south, to re-populate Europe. This marks the beginning of western civilization, as we now know it.

In order to gain an insight into the events of that distant time, which is so critical to our understanding of the modern world, we must rely entirely on archeology; the examination of whatever remaining artifacts we can find. These artifacts generally include the ruins of buildings, possesions such as pottery and tools, art objects, grave goods, and of course human and animal remains.

As a science, archeology is a relatively recent phenomena, having begun in earnest only a few centuries ago. Naturally, early attemps to recover ancient artifacts were clumsey at best. Precious objects were often destroyed by careless excavations, improper preservation, and looting. The total number of researchers involved in archeology was relatively low, and methods of recording and transfering data were tedious and unreliable.

Modern archeological techniques have greatly improved. There are far more people working in the field today, and the capability of computers to store and transfer data has made it possible for experts located virtually anywhere on Earth to collaborate. In addition, new technologies such as carbon dating, electron microscopes, ground-penetrating radar and DNA analysis are providing us with a wealth of insights and discoveries.

One archeologist to whom we owe a great debt was Gordon Childe. Born in Australia in 1892, Childe attended Oxford and spent most of his life working in the UK. During the course of his career of roughly 30 years, he completely revolutionized our understanding of pre-history, and ultimately became the single most influential archeologist of the 20th century.

Unlike anyone before him, Childe presented an overview of human development, rather than merely a detailed description of some particular culture. Through a series of over 20 books, he established three key concepts which today form the basis for our understanding of the western Neolithic world.

First, Childe demonstrated that the origins of human civilization were in the Near East, and not the Middle East, as had been previously believed.

Second, Childe demonstrated that it had been people from the Near East who had introduced techniques of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the production of woven fabrics into Europe. These advancements in human evolution are what characterize the so-called Neolithic Period.

Finally, Childe established that an invasion of Europe by people from the general area of the Ukraine occured between 4000-2000 BCE. He referred to these invaders as Proto-Indo-Europeans , and was able to determine that they were a patriarchal warrior society, who followed a violent male god, practiced human sacrifice, and believed in an after-life. They conducted elaborate burials in large mounds of earth called kurgans , from which their modern nickname is derived.

Childe's work was based entirely on the examination of artifacts and linguistic evidence. However, since that time, a large number of new discoveries have been made, which clearly confirm his findings. In addition to his brilliant technical work, he will also be remembered as a man who made archeology more accessable to ordinary people, with such wonderful books as "Man Makes Himself" (1936) and "What Happened in History" (1942).

Another well-known archeologist who played a major role in changing the world's views of pre-history was Jacquetta Hawkes. Born in the UK in 1910, she attended Newnham college in Cambridge. It was there that she met her first husband, Christopher Hawkes, a field archeologist. She started to join him on digs, and to uncover evidence of primordial Goddess religion at various Neolithic sites.

Over time, she began to focus on the dramatic social and cultural changes which the invasion of the Proto-Indo-European peoples had brought about. Her insightful interpretation of evidence, and her eloquent style of writing attracted a great deal of attention... yet it was not until she began to explore the ruins of the Minoan civilization on Crete, that her work would finally be taken seriously.

There, on that remote Aegean island, which had remained virtually untouched by the Kurgan invasion, she found overwhelming evidence of a society which had preserved a Neolithic Goddess tradition well into the Bronze Age... and indeed, a society that was incredibly peaceful, artistic and prosperous. Through a remarkable series of books, newspaper and magazine articles, lectures, and radio and TV interviews, Hawkes portrayed the existence of primordial Goddess religion and gender-egalitarian cultures to the public, in ways that simply could not be ignored.

Although her work was controversial at the time, Jacquetta Hawkes remained steadfast and outspoken. Eventually, new discoveries began to confirm her theories... and fortunately she lived long enough to receive some of the recognition and honors that she deserved.

Archeologists such as Gordon Childe and Jacquetta Hawkes had the intelligence and insight to see beyond the mistaken presumptions of their peers, at a time when the evidence available to them was quite limited. However, if the archeological community required indisputable proof, it was a gentleman by the name of James Mellaart who would supply it.

Born in London in 1925, Mellaart seemed to posses a natural instinct for finding hidden ancient sites. Early in his career he made several amazing discoveries, including a large cache of bronze-age artifacts on Cypress, and a fully intact tomb in Jericho. Later, while wandering through the Turkish back-country alone in 1956, he discovered the Neolithic site of Hacilar , which contained figurines suggestive of a Mother Goddess archetype.

Yet it was Mellaarts next discovery which would become the final catalyst for fundamental changes in the view of pre-history, throughout the entire archeological community. In 1961, James Mellaart began the excavation of Catal Hoyuk , a site which would eventually be recognized as the most well-preserved Neolithic city that has ever been found.

Here, buried beneath a wind-swept and lonely hill, lay the remains of a civilization 9000 years removed from our own. Agriculture, the domestication of animals, houses with built-in cooking ovens, pottery, woven fabrics, jewelry, mirrors made of polished black obsidian, stone knives and other tools... it was all there. And best of all, James Mellaart discovered clear evidence of the world's first formalized religion.

Work on the Catal Hoyuk site is still in progress, however of the 300 houses excavated so far, fully 88 have contained shrines dedicated to a Mother Goddess , and dozens of primitive carved figures and murals depicting the Goddess have been found. She was often represented seated on a throne, surrounded by a pair of lions... clearly the image that we have come to associate with the Great Mother Goddess Cybele.


(left) Mother Goddess statue from Catal Hoyuk, circa 6200 BCE. Note the lions.
(right) Roman statue of the Great Mother Goddess Cybele, made over 6000 years later.

Without a written language, we shall never know what the people of Catal Hoyuk called themselves, or what they called the Goddess, but it is quite clear that they existed in southern Turkey, as early as 7000 BCE.

As might be expected, a tremendous controversy over the interpretation of the evidence ensued. There were some who said that Catal Hoyuk was some sort of an anomaly, and not truly representative of life in the Neolithic period. However, since that time, many other Neolithic sites have been discovered in the Near and Middle East, and most of them have contained similar artifacts.

Catal Hoyuk was not a mere anomaly... it was in fact typical of it's era. Better preserved than most, somewhat more affluent and larger, but in many ways an eminently presentable example of it's type. Clearly, James Mellaart's work dramatically altered our understanding of the origins of human spirituality... but it would be another archeologist, Marija Gimbutas , who would extend that understanding throughout all of pre-historic Europe.

Marija was born in Lithuania in 1921, and was already an acomplished archeologist when she arrived in the United States in 1949. During her career, she conducted numerous excavations of Neolithic sites and uncovered a large number of household and religious artifacts. She began to see a pattern in them, which eventually lead her to focus on the cultural and spiritual practices of the people involved.

Around 1960, she began to use the new process of carbon dating to determine the exact age of artifacts, and to develop a very accurate chronology of pre-historic events. This enabled her to significantly refine Gordon Childe's Proto-Indo-European concept, into what she called the Kurgan hypothesis. Later, after 1990, techniques of DNA analysis furthur confirmed the scenario, to the point where it is the prevailing view in the archeological community today.

The original population of Europe had indeed come from the Near East. They were the same peaceful, artistic people who had built such cities as Catal Hoyuk. They practiced agriculture, had an egalitarian society, and appear to have worshipped the same sort of primordial Mother Goddess as was found in so many other places throughout the Neolithic Near East.

The Kurgan invasion began around 4000 BCE. It came in several waves, reaching various areas over a span of about 2000 years. The Kurgans arrived on horseback, bearing battle-axes, which had been previously unknown in the area. From the number of bodies found, who had obviously been killed with these weapons, we can deduce that the Kurgan invasion was a violent military-style assault.

That the indigenous people had an agricultural society can be determined by their diet and the particular sort of tools that they possesed. That they were generally peaceful is readily apparent from the lack of human-caused violent deaths prior to the invasion, and the absence of weapons of war. Moreover, they were an artistic people, which we can quickly appreciate from the ornate and beautifully painted pottery and other works of art, that can now be dated to the pre-invasion period.

The claim that the indigenous people worshipped a Great Mother Goddess is well-supported by the abundance of Goddess figurines that they made. Finally, the fact that women had been accorded an equal status with men is indicated by their similar burials, and the quantity of grave goods found with their remains.

As each successive area was subjugated by the Kurgans, everything changed. They installed a barbaric warrior hierarchy, and imposed their language and religion on the conquered people, the nature of which may be inferred from a large number of crude figurines of a rather stern-looking male god, often bearing weapons.

Thus, peaceful Neolithic societies were forced to modify their Goddess-based religions, and incorporate patriarchal and violent beliefs. Only in the Near East, and a few other isolated areas, did religion avoid this sort of a change. Because their population was widely dispersed and difficult to subjugate, their original religious beliefs remained relatively intact for a somewhat longer time.

Although there has been considerable controversy about the work of Marija Gimbutas, it is diminishing rapidly as a new generation of archeologists with more objective viewpoints replaces the previous one. In addition, early doubts about the exact age of artifacts and the identities of human remains have now been virtually eliminated, as a result of carbon dating and DNA analysis.

Today, a new understanding of human history and spirituality is emerging in the public consciousness. Through the work of archeologists like Gordon Childe, Jacquetta Hawkes, James Mellaart, and Marija Gimbutas, we have learned that peaceful egalitarian Goddess-based societies existed for thousands of years... and that patriarchy, warfare, and domination are not an unavoidable natural phenomena which has ruled our world forever. What effect these insights will have remains uncertain, but what is clear is that it was these four men and women who, more than any other, made them possible.

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From left to right: Gordon Childe, Jacquetta Hawkes, James Mellaart, and Marija Gimbutas

"Through an understanding of what the Goddess was, we can better understand nature, and we can build our ideologies so that it will be easier for us to live... We have to be grateful for what we have, for all the beauty... and the Goddess is exactly that... the Goddess is nature itself... and I think this should be returned to humanity."   Marija Gimbutas, October 1992