Agriculture before Writing

To find the roots of writing we will look back before Sumer to ‘Ain Ghazal and how it developed over time. ‘Ain Ghazal is one of the sites where tokens were first used. And so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking there is only one way cultures can evolve we will contrast ‘Ain Ghazal with Çatalhöyük, a roughly contemporaneous site in Anatolia in modern day Turkey. Both started as small villages of sedentary M-adapted hunter/gatherers over time they supplemented their hunting and gathering with planting. Over time became fully agricultural with domesticated animals. Both had a rich symbol life but Çatalhöyük did not use tokens to indicate real goods or develop the kind of hierarchical social structure that accompanied the development of writing.

The evolution of symbol systems and eventually writing, like the evolution of agriculture was a slow, step-by-step process that took some 5,000 years from the first tokens to writing.

Prehistoric Agriculture – the Archaeological evidence from Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazal

We can see a comparison of the economic and social evolution of Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazal in table 1.

  ‘Ain Ghazal Çatalhöyük



Social Organization

Treatment of the Dead


Social Organization

Treatment of the Dead

After 4700 BCE

Site Abandoned

Site Abandoned

5700 to 4700 BCE Cattle and pigs domesticated commerce Craft specialization Priesthood, class system From tombs to communal graves
6700 to 5700 BCE Agriculture goat herding, trade, commerce Craft specialization Priesthood, class system Floor tombs, painted heads but other remains outside and still others discarded in trash heaps Agriculture, domesticated cattle, sheep and goats – some long distance trade Egalitarian – increased task specialization by gender – indications of some craft specialization Outside burials at new site – Çatalhöyük West.
7500 to 6700 BCE Agriculture – goats domesticated Beginning of craft specialization Bodies flexed, floor tombs some heads were removed, plastered and painted Agriculture, domesticated sheep and goats Egalitarian – gender specialization but both genders had the same status Bodies flexed, floor tombs some heads were removed, plastered and painted
Transition to agriculture Egalitarian – gender specialization Agriculture, supplementing hunting/gathering
Before 7500 BCE Hunting and Gathering

No Occupation

Table 1 Evolution of the Economy, Treatment of the Dead and Social Organization at ‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük

We often think that economics drives other values but the odd thing about this data is that it shows a very similar economic evolution but a very different social evolution. The people of ‘Ain Ghazal developed a hierarchy over time whereas the people of Çatalhöyük retained their egalitarian social structure throughout.

Social evolution is shown by the treatment of the dead. At ‘Ain Ghazal some of the dead are be buried in the floor of the house but others are buried outside and some are simply discarded in the trash heap.

If we do a further comparison we see that the evolution of houses and symbol life are again markedly different as shown in table 2.

‘Ain Ghazal




Symbol Life


Symbol Life

After 5700

Site abandoned

Site abandoned

5700 to 4700 BCE Small houses with Paved street for processions Large temple Temple with a rooms for a sanctuary and for public worship
6700 to 5700 BCE Larger houses for several families. Small buildings with apses –temples. Tokens for commerce and large human figures probably dressed in fabric clothing for community ritual Large communal ovens on rooftops. Plain walls only in new site Plain walls, painting that was previously done on walls done on pottery
Elaboration of house decoration. Individualized building methods for each family transferred through generations but not shared with other families. Female figurines in grain storage bins, continued use of wall paintings, small figurines, jaguar figurines, animal parts embedded in walls and elaboration of houses
7500 to 6700 BCE Small figurines of wild oxen, and male and female human forms Wall paintings, small figurines elaboration of wall paintings and animal parts embedded in walls
Stone houses white washed floors Small figurines Mud brick soft lime interiors needing annual renewal Murals, animal parts embedded in walls and small figurines
Before 7500 BCE

No occupation

Table 2 – Comparison of houses and symbol life at Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazal

At the beginning of the sequence, the villages – Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazal – are similar. People lived in similar individual mud-brick or stone houses that are typical for this time period in the Levant.

The social unit was based on the nuclear family each in its own house. From the kinds of houses and the way they were built, as well as their treatment of the dead, both were egalitarian societies with little social or occupational differentiation.

Over time the people of Çatalhöyük made their houses more and more elaborate and their symbol life became richer but they didn’t change the form and type of house or the organization of the village.

The people of ‘Ain Ghazal did not elaborate their symbol life or their daily live in the same way. They did not focus their symbol life on or in their houses. Instead they developed different kinds of houses for different purposes. They developed a temple and large figurines that could be used in large group worship. This indicates a priestly class. During the same time period the people of ‘Ain Ghazal began to use clay tokens to keep track of certain goods.

From the preceding chapters we know that people began to perceive the world as scarce after the extinctions at the end of the Ice Age. From that we can assume that people during the transition between hunting and gathering, and agriculture began to evolve new perceptions based on their former understanding. They probably had a mix of values possibly holding contradictory values at the same time. For example, they saw the world as scarce and so valued owning and storing material goods and yet, probably still held many of the values of a sharing culture.

As we take a closer look at the two sites we will see how their choices amongst these values played out in the way the two villages evolved.


For the time (the Neolithic about 9,500 to 6,000 BCE) Çatalhöyük was a large village. During the time of its occupation the population fluctuated between 3,000 and 8,000. It was physically large as well. The archaeological site is a large mound that encompasses some 33.5 acres.


The people of Çatalhöyük ate both cultivated and wild plants and seeds, including tubers, wild grasses, lentils, hackberries, acorns, and pistachios, they grew cereals such as wheat and barley. They domesticated goats, sheep and after 6000 BCE cattle. They engaged in some long distance trade and did a little hunting of wild cattle.

Over time they relied less on hunting and gathering and relied more and more on agriculture and animal husbandry eventually abandoning hunting and gathering completely. [1]


From examining the way houses were built archaeologists can see that there was no specialization at Çatalhöyük. Houses built on the same site have been built, using the same construction methods over time, but there is no standardization in how a house is built across the site. Two houses right next to each other might be built using different construction methods. From this Ian Hodder, the leader of the Çatalhöyük archaeological project, has inferred that each family passed down building techniques to the following generation. There were no ‘builders’ who were specialists in house because builders would build each house using the same methods. *

One of the most distinctive things about the houses at Çatalhöyük is how people treated the walls of their houses. They painted murals and embedded animal parts in the walls, especially the sharp, pointed parts of animals – cattle heads the skulls, complete with horns, of wild cattle, the paws and claws of bears, the skulls and talons of birds of prey and vultures. And since the plaster was renewed frequently the murals had to be re-painted and over time the animal parts became part of the wall itself. There are many depictions of leopards – bas relief depictions, figurines of leopards, and of people wearing leopard skin clothing, although to date only one toe bone has been found.

‘Ain Ghazal

At its greatest extent, around 7000 BCE, ‘Ain Ghazal extended over 10-15 hectares (25–37 ac) and supported about 3000 people. After 6500 BCE, in only a few generations, the population dropped to about one sixth of this size. The radical drop was probably due to environmental degradation. Eventually, after 4700 BCE the site was abandoned and only nomads used the area. [2]


‘Ain Ghazal was occupied earlier than Çatalhöyük. But like the people Çatalhöyük the people of ‘Ain Ghazal hunted small game: gazelle, deer, horses, pigs and other small animals. As they overhunted and gathered the surrounding area hunting and gathering became less feasible therefore the people of ‘Ain Ghazal supplemented their gathering with planting and their hunting with herding. Over time they became fully agricultural. They herded domestic goats and cultivated cereals (barley and ancient species of wheat), legumes (peas, beans and lentils) and chickpeas in fields above the village.


‘Ain Ghazal started as a typical pre-pottery Neolithic village of modest size set on the side of a terraced valley-side. It was built with rectangular mud-brick houses that accommodated a square main room and a smaller anteroom. Walls were plastered with mud on the outside, and with lime plaster inside that was renewed every few years.

Unlike the people of Çatalhöyük, over time, the people of ‘Ain Ghazal began to specialize in different crafts. Their buildings reflected this specialization in their differentiation. Most notably, they began to have special structures that were devoted to worship and the family house became less important as a worship center.

Changes in Demographics

‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük were both in areas that were suitable for agriculture and both grew as a result of the same dynamic. Archaeologists believe it worked something like this: throughout the mid east much of the land was exhausted after some 700 years of planting and so became unsuitable for agriculture. The people from those small villages abandoned their unproductive fields and migrated, with their domestic animals, to places with better ecological conditions, like ‘Ain Ghazal and Çatalhöyük that could support larger populations.

The influx of new people placed stresses on the social fabric – new diseases, more people to feed from what was planted and more animals that needed grazing. Each village responded to the stress in their own way. By comparing and contrasting the way each evolved we can see the choices made by each of the groups.


Hodder notes that though Çatalhöyük grew to be very large the people maintained their egalitarian social structure. There is no evidence of the emergence of a hierarchy. There is no evidence of labor differentiation or specialization.

Over time, the people of Çatalhöyük focused more and energy and effort on the house as the nexus of the family. The house and family, rather than the village, was the major social unit. People knew who they were because of what kin group they belonged to, what house they lived in, and the traditions of that house.

Hodder writes of the contrast between Çatalhöyük and contemporary sites in Anatolia:

For example, at Aşıklı Höyük, a site dating from about 10,700 until 9,300 years ago, there are ceremonial buildings, but the houses are much less elaborate than the ones at Çatalhöyük, where a wide range of functions, from burial, ritual, and art to storage, manufacture, and production were more clearly drawn into the house. [3]

What Hodder calls the elaboration of the house is apparent in the treatment of the walls. They were decorated with paintings and the heads of bulls and vultures and the claws of bears. He says:

Paintings depict vultures flying over headless human bodies, suggesting the practice, adopted in some parts of the world, of setting out the deceased so that they can be naturally defleshed. Figurines depict generously proportioned females. One sculpture shows a female seated on a “throne” whose armrests are felines. Recently we unearthed a male skull, perhaps belonging to a revered ancestor, over which plaster features had been periodically modeled and painted. Eventually another person died—a female—and the skull was buried along with her [4]

‘Ain Ghazhal

In contrast as new people migrated to ‘Ain Ghazal, probably with few possessions and possibly starving, class distinctions began to develop.

We can see evidence of class in the way the dead are treated. Some people are buried in the floors of their houses as they would be at Çatalhöyük or at other sites in the Levant. After the flesh had wasted away some of the skulls were disinterred and decorated. This was either a form of respect or so that they could impart their power to the house and the people in it. However, unlike Çatalhöyük, some people were thrown on trash heaps and their bodies remain intact.[5]

Animals, Gods and Goddess

Initially both the people of ‘Ain Ghazhal and Çatalhöyük probably had a ritual life based on feasting and celebrating the hunt. These were traditions that were still in use from when they were hunting and gathering. We saw in Chapter I that people who had been following the herds of animals came together, like the animals they followed and that these were times for feasting, socializing, courting, exchanging news and meeting new people.

Probably, like us, the people of ‘Ain Ghazhal and Çatalhöyük looked back on the past as a more secure and pure time and celebrated it as a time of plenty, of closeness to the powers of nature and the universe. Probably they felt they still needed the prowess and purity of the earlier time when they walked in peace and had all they needed. Although their lives had changed they retained many of their values and it is likely, they still wanted the strength of the cunning and speed of leopard, the strength of the bull and the far seeing of birds.


Much has been written about the ‘cult of the goddess’ at Çatalhöyük. This was based on the various figurines of women found at the site when it was first excavated by James Mellart in the late 1960s[6] and figurines of women continue to be found in the current excavations directed by Ian Hodder[7].

One of the most famous ‘goddess’ figurines has a seed in its back large breasts and belly it has small arms and on its back is a skeleton or extremely thin person. Hodder suggests that it may be a woman who is either in the process of becoming an elder or is associated with death and rebirth. Thus far in the excavations there are no figurines of a woman nursing a child. This suggests that women had importance beyond the care of children. As the people of Çatalhöyük relied more and more on agriculture for their subsistence there are more and more depictions of women.

However, current excavations don’t support the notion that Çatalhöyük was matriarchal. Both genders had their roles but that those roles did not indicate different status. The remains of both men and women indicate similar health and diet and burials indicate similar honor.

Burials also indicate that both the young and the old were honored. There are grave goods found with the remains of small children perhaps because they were the hope of the future and with the old who connected them with their past.

As mentioned above there are no temples. There are some houses that have more elaborate decoration and more figurines so might be described as more developed. But the people did not have any more material wealth or live better than others. They may simply have earned the right to decorate their house more or have accumulated more ritual honors for the family over time.

The walls of these elaborated houses are striking. They are decorated with murals depicting wild animals and hunting, and have the parts or wild animals embedded in the walls and benches . And there are many depictions of leopards although, to date, only one leopard toe bone has been found.

In all houses, the house is divided into clean and dirty areas. Ritual objects and murals are found in the clean area and whereas other activities took place in dirty areas. Stored agricultural food was kept hidden behind plain unadorned walls hidden from the hunted animals whose parts are part of the ‘clean’ part of the house.

Hiding agricultural food away from the clean, ritual part of the house suggests that the people were ashamed of storing up against want. They still held to the values of their hunter/gatherer past when they didn’t plant or store. They may have felt they had, in some way, betrayed or sinned against that simpler, purer time when they believed in the goodness of the world, the hunt, obsidian, and leopards.

Ritual at Çatalhöyük seems to have been a private family matter which becomes part of the larger community only periodically when a feast was held.

‘Ain Ghazal

In the earlier levels at ‘Ain Ghazhal there are small ceramic figures that seem to have been used as personal or familial ritual figures. There are figurines of both animals and people. The animal figures are of horned animals and the front part of the animal is the most clearly modeled. They all give the impression of dynamic force. Some of the animal figures have been stabbed in their vital parts these figures have then been buried in the houses. Other figurines were burned and then discarded with the rest of the fire [8]).

There are also figurines of people some do not seem to have any specific gender. Where a gender can be identified it is always female because of the large pregnant belly and enlarged breasts.

As the people of ‘Ain Ghazhal relied more and more on agriculture for their subsistence there are more and more depictions of women. These figures are found buried under the floors or walls or in middens. So like Çatalhöyük the people of ‘Ain Ghazal hid the figures associated with agriculture.

However, for the people of ‘Ain Ghazhal there were more profound differences in their religious and ritual practice. They built ritual building and used large figurines or statues.

Ritual buildings are not dwellings and not used as houses their purpose is to bring people together and build community during religious or celebratory rites. The actual building of them is also a way for an elite group to demonstrate and reify its authority over those who owe the community or the elite labor as service and to bond laborers together as part of a new community.[9]

Along with ritual buildings is the introduction of large public statues. Small figurines were acceptable for small local rituals and continued to be used, but they didn’t work as well for a larger population or public display. The statues with their large size, stylized features, and, probably, bright add-on garments could be used in rites and rituals for the entire community. So the monumental statuary was part of the shift away from domestic to public ritual. [10]

This shift from small figurines to monumental statues shows a step in the manipulation of symbolism. Symbols are tools of thought so people can both share and secrete ideas. Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes:

Monumental statuary was an outcome of agriculture. The statues were created to bond the large population supported by farming. The monumental figures were powerful symbols that helped foster a common ideology, restructure society, enhance leadership and amplify the need for administrating the communal resources in the early agricultural communities. These important developments eventually paved the way for state formation. [11]

In addition to the monumental statues small, clay and stone tokens, some with incised with geometric or naturalistic shapes were found at ‘Ain Ghazal.[12] Schmandt-Besserat has shown these artifacts, found in various Neolithic village sites throughout the Near East, to have had two main functions: as counters to calculate quantities of goods; and as mnemonic devices used to store data. Different token shapes represent different kinds of material goods oil, various cereals, and herd animals.[13] [14]

There was no effort at keeping or preserving tokens (many were found in trash middens) so they were not money as we think of it. They were most likely memory aids. Occasionally tokens will be found in graves suggesting that these people were important in some way and that the tokens stood for a certain quantity of material goods. This is the first step toward writing.

So the picture we have painted of ‘Ain Ghazal is of a society that is well on its way to a class system where there are priests serving in the temple and using the large figurines as part of public ritual. There are crafts specialists and there are the despised members of the underclass – those whose bodies are thrown on the trash heap. And it is in this context that the use of tokens for keeping track has its beginning.

Our Story Thus Far

Let us recap where we are thus far. Initially, during the last Ice age, people perceived a world of plenty – an Eden. They lived in egalitarian hunter/gatherer groups. The significant social unit was the nuclear family. People knew their place in society by their family affiliation. Groups of families traveled together and when the herds of animals came together so did the groups of people following the animals. At these gatherings they had the opportunity to exchange information, make alliances, court, and feast. Band size and composition changed in response to the environment rather than people changing the environment to fit the group.

With the extinction of large mammals at the end of the Ice age people began to experience scarcity. Their perception of the world changed from one of plenty to one of scarcity – from a world view based on information to a world view based on material goods. They began to be more concerned with the accumulation and storage of material goods. This led to sedentism and village life. Over time, they used up local wild resources. Because they didn’t want to leave their possessions, their village, and their sedentary life style, people supplemented their diets with planted and domesticated food.

This was probably a fairly wide spread phenomenon and again over time local resources were depleted. When this happened people would, as they had as hunter/gatherers, move to a place where there were more resources. This had the effect of creating larger groupings of people then had happened before. Both Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazhal grew as a result of this dynamic.

Village growth had the side effect of longer term sociality and an increase in disease both of which created tensions. In addition, with long term sociality the problem of the free-rider became more important. It was necessary to know who was ‘pulling their own weight’ and who was not, who was contributing to the general welfare and who was not.

Both Çatalhöyük and ‘Ain Ghazhal felt constrained to take the new people in, but they responded differently.

The people of Çatalhöyük seem to have focused on egalitarianism and the nuclear family which was the significant social unit of hunter/gatherer society and economy. They probably saw the house as the symbolic expression of the family. The house received strength from the animal parts embedded in the walls, the paintings on the walls and from the people buried under the floor. Stored food and associated figurines were hidden from the “clean, ritual” part of the house suggesting some kind of guilt or shame associated with storage.

There were more and less elaborated houses so it may be that some families owned the rights to some kinds of symbolic decoration and ritual strength and other families had fewer rights. But this seems to be the only manifestation of differences between houses and consequently between families. Thus, Çatalhöyük retained the egalitarianism of hunter/gatherers perhaps at the cost of group cohesion. Because everything was produced within the family there was no free-rider problem. Everyone in a family knows who participates and defines their sense of how that participation is enforced. Since the people of Çatalhöyük did not develop or use tokens although they did participate in long distance trade it is likely that they still traded “with people” rather than “with things”.

In contrast the people of ‘Ain Ghazal seem to have focused on the public gathering and feasting aspect of hunter/gatherer society. They probably saw the influx of new people in the village as similar to the drawing together of bands. They may have seen the new comers as a lower class. And since disease came with increased population they may have seen the new people as bearers of disease. It is clear that as the village grew specialization, elites, public ritual buildings, monumental statues, and counting systems all begin more or less at the same time. They had already established a distributed economy – that people specialized in producing something that is then traded for other necessities – oil for grain, lentils for meat etc. They needed to know that a person was ‘pulling their weight’. They had the free-rider problem and tokens were part of they way they solved it.


Assuming all the above to be true, then the invention of scarcity leads to being increasingly involved with material goods which necessitates a sedentary life style. These both lead to a greater involvement with long term sociality since people live in close proximity the same geographic area. The way that sociality is defined depends upon what choices the people make based on their understanding of their traditions and life ways.

Economy and/or ecology are not the sole determiners of what choices are made by a culture. When the existing village system is shocked (economically, demographically, or ecologically) it chooses its response based on the history and perceptions.

If they focus on autonomy and egalitarianism of the nuclear family as the prime social unit, it results in a village like Çatalhöyük with ritual and symbolic life focused on the house, if they focus on the gathering of the group then a more public ritual and symbolic life evolves.

The second alternative, focusing on public life leads to specialization, the evolution of elites and classes, which necessitates keeping track of who owes what to whom and who has paid what to whom. This kind of sociality eventually paved the way for great literature, fine art, magnificent architecture, kings, states, priesthoods, the oppression of women and the poor, class differences, slavery, and war.

^* In our housing developments houses may look different but the same kinds of materials and standard sizes of everything from nails to pipes to studs to plywood and wall board thickness is standard indicating a building profession.

^ [1] Hodder, I.
    2006 This Old House, Natural History Magazine, June 2006

^ [2] Köhler-Rollefson I.

    1992 The Raika dromedary breeders of Rajasthan: A pastoral system in crisis, Nomadic Peoples 30:74-83.

^ [3] Ob cit. Hodder, I.

^ [4] Ob cit. Hodder, I.

^ [5] Rollefson. G. & I. Kohler-Rollefson

    1992 Early Neolithic exploitation patterns in the Levant: cultural impact on the environment. Population and Environment 13(4): 243-254

^ [6] Balter, M.

    2004 The Goddess and the Bull: Çatalhöyük: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization. Free Press, NY

^ [7] Hodder , I

    ???? The Leopards’ tale.

^ [8] Rollefson, G. O.

    1998. Invoking the Spirit Prehistoric religion at Ain Ghazal, Archaeology Odyssey 1:01, Web address

^ [9] Mendelssohn, K

    1986. Riddle of the Pyramids, Thames & Hudson

^ [10] Freer/Sackler Exhbition

    1996 Smithsonian Institution

^ [11] Schmandt-Besserat, D.

    1998 ‘Ain Ghazal Monumental Figures, in Bulletin of American School of Oriental Research, vol. 310, p. 1-17

^ [12] Ob cit. Rollefson. G. & I. Kohler-Rollefson 1992

^ [13] Schmandt-Besserat, D.

    1992 Before Writing, A Catalog of Near Eastern Tokens, The University of Texas Press vol. I:178.