Feast, Famine or Fighting?

Volume 8 of the series Studies in Human Ecology and Adaptation pp 91-132


Feasting, Social Complexity, and the Emergence of the Early Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia: A View from Göbekli Tepe

  • Oliver DietrichAffiliated withDeutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung Email author 
  • , Jens NotroffAffiliated withDeutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung
  • , Klaus SchmidtAffiliated withDeutsches Archäologisches Institut, Orient-Abteilung

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Early Neolithic social complexity is a topic much discussed but still under-researched. The present contribution explores the possible role of feasting in the emergence of social complexity , hierarchical societies and the shift to the Neolithic way of life in Upper Mesopotamia . This region has long been placed at the periphery of the area relevant for crucial steps in Neolithization. With the hill sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe , however, it has produced a site that challenges this traditional assumption. There, large circle-like enclosures made up of often richly decorated T-shaped pillars of up to 5.5 m height have been erected during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (10th millennium BC), followed by smaller rectangular pillar-buildings throughout the early and middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (9th millennium BC). Vast evidence for feasting at the site seems to hint at work feasts to accomplish the common, religiously motivated task of constructing these enclosures. Given the significant amount of time, labor, and skilled craftsmanship invested, and as elements of Göbekli Tepe’s material culture can be found around it in a radius of roughly 200 km all over Upper Mesopotamia , it is likely that the site was the cultic center of transegalitarian groups. Access to and command of knowledge crucial to the society’s identity and well-being may have served as a social barrier hindering individuals to step outside of the given limits, while being the basis for power over the workforce of others for a restricted group of people. Social hierachization seems to emerge already in the PPN A of Upper Mesopotamia , earlier than hitherto thought, and maybe also earlier than in the Southern Levant, a region long thought to be the cradle of the new, Neolithic way of life.


Upper Mesopotamia Pre-Pottery Neolithic Göbekli Tepe Feasting Social complexity