The hot midday sun beats down on the bleached stones that litter the barren slopes of Jericho’s ancient city. It’s hard to make sense of the site because the long lasting occupation of the city has left successive layers of rubble and earth studded with the occasional archeological clue.
Jericho’s old city is one of only a handful of archeological sites that can help us understand why our ancestors gave up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and settled as farmers instead.
Living as we do today in a highly organized and complicated society that is heavily dependent on farming, it would be easy to assume that this change was part of the logical progression of civilization. This however, does not seem to be the case, as malnutrition and disease was more common among the sedentary population. As cultural theorist Susan J Blackmore writes:
‘Rather than being easier, the life of early farmers was utter misery. Early Egyptian skeletons tell a story of a terrible life. Their toes and backs are deformed by the way people had to grind corn to make bread; they show signs of rickets and of terrible abscesses in their jaws. Probably few lived beyond the age of 30. Stories in the Old Testament describe the arduous work of farmers and after all, Adam was thrown out of Eden and told ‘in the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread’. ‘
Stone for pounding olives, lentils or grain
Blackmore goes on to discuss the British science writer Colin Tudge’s hypothesis that the new farmers were then able to have much bigger families, giving them a genetic advantage over the hunter-gatherers, who were slowly marginalised.
In 1953 archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon noticed the top of a human skull protruding from the side of one of the trenches they were digging in Jericho. She and her team then went on to discover a further six skulls that had also been buried beneath the plastered floor of a house. Each skull had been carefully covered in plaster and had been given finely modeled features. They also had cowrie shells inlaid in their eye sockets suggesting that they were regarded as objects of high importance since the sea is 50km from Jericho.
Image courtesy of The Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem
The information card assigned to one of the skulls now housed in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem states:
These skulls are commonly viewed as part of an ancestor cult. It is possible that the profound changes experiences by Neolithic society- the transition from nomadism to permanent settlements, from hunting and gathering to raising crops and livestock- deepened the need to foster this cult, the purpose of which might have been to cause blessings of the ancestors to be bestowed on select individuals in the community or the community as a whole.
However Jacques Cauvin argues that ‘major changes in thought preceded changes in subsistence: people changed their religion and symbolism before they became farmers, not as a result of becoming farmers.’
Perhaps the complex belief system focused on the dead was not just a byproduct of the new sedentary lifestyle, but the catalyst that caused our ancestors to domesticate plants and animals in the first place.
In their book Inside the Neolithic mind, David Lewis Williams and David Pearce look at an analogous site. Goblekli Tepe in turkey is very close to the Karacadag hills, which have been pinpointed as the area from which domesticated einkorn wheat originated.
‘Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds would have been needed to make the Gobekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated…The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself.’
I suspect that our early hunter-gatherer ancestors would have had a pretty good grasp of the lifecycle of the plants they depended upon. For people who had inherited thousands of years of observational knowledge from their own ancestors, it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have known how to grow grain from seed. In light of this, the practice of farming looks less like a spontaneous invention and more like a conscious decision to make a huge cultural shift.
As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of creativity, I believe that the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one had little to do with practicality and everything to do with creativity or spirituality, and these may have been one and the same. Perhaps our ancestors felt that they needed to live on top of the physical presence of their own ancestors, whose spirits resided inside the plastered skulls. Perhaps having constant contact with physical, man-made objects became so important that people were willing to sacrifice their nomadic lifestyle.
The debate surrounding the original motive for the shift has been ongoing for as long as anybody can remember. Many people have put forward theories as to why it happened and, interestingly they are usually cast in the light of their own particular epistemic framework. Perhaps the fascination with Jericho is part of making sense of where we came from, helping us to recognize ourselves today by creating a narrative that connects us with the distant past.
We will probably never know for sure, but while walking over the rock-littered moonscape, looking down at the dark shadows cast by the midday sun high over today’s Jericho, I feel certain that this place resonates with all of us.