Discovery of 9,000-year-old Cultic Sites Changes Our Understanding of the Evolution of Worship

Discovered belatedly in the inhospitable heart of the desert, the sites, featuring brazenly sexual elements, indicate that the desert peoples developed worship over a millennium before the farming folk.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Seven small masseboth, as found in Naḥal Shehoret, with a small copper nodule at the foot of the central massebah.
Seven small masseboth, as found in Naḥal Shehoret, with a small copper nodule at the foot of the central massebah.Credit: Uzi Avner
Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

An “explosion” of Neolithic cult sites, representing fertility and ancestral worship, has been belatedly noticed and studied in the inhospitable desert mountains of southern Israel – and is changing our understanding of human development in the region. Artifacts and radiometric analyses indicate that an organized religion was firmly established in the area 9,000 years ago, predating desert farming and herding by one millennium.

In late 2014, the research team headed by the archaeologist Dr. Uzi Avner of the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center reported finding 102 Neolithic cult sites in a limited area of only three by four kilometers, in the Eilat mountains.

Those finds near Eilat turn out to have been the tip of the iceberg. So far 355 sites have been discovered in the southern Negev. A few were also discovered in the desert mountains in southern Jordan.

The sites consistently feature rock installations symbolizing fertility, dated 9,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Since these places have been sitting around exposed for as much as 9,000 years, one wonders why they weren't noticed before, especially as paths leading to the sites are still discernible to this day, attesting that a many people trekked over them for long periods of time. One answer is that the sites are located on rugged mountainous terrain, not easily accessible to surveyors. A second is that the sites are small and low, and are barely discernible.

Humanoid forms and imported stones

The sites contain circular or oval stone installations, 1.5-2 meters across, and elongated cells around 4x1 meter in size, pointing at the circle. They also include many ‘regular’ standing stones (masseboth), perforated masseboth, stone bowls, stones with an elongated perforation, anthropomorphic stone images, and more.

Intriguingly, the vast majority of these stone objects were of limestone, brought to the igneous mountains from some distance, so their color was different. The masseboth were found set either individually or in groups of repeating numbers: two, three, five and seven.

While ‘regular’ masseboth are common in the desert, the perforated ones are unique to this type of Neolithic cult sites.

The anthropomorphic images, also unique to these sites, were either unshaped, selected for their natural general human form, or had a carved neck. A few were hammered all over but still schematic in appearance.

In some sites, stone objects were found buried or placed upside-down. These included ‘regular’ and perforated masseboth and anthropomorphic stone images. Yet another set of masseboth had grooves, again indicative of female genitalia.

So far, the sites have only been only surveyed, not excavated, but in many of them flint tools of the Early and Late Neolithic were collected from the surface. In some sites copper ores and animal bones were found, the latter indicating animal sacrifices. Not one single pottery sherd was found in the sites, which indicates that by the 5th millennium BCE, they had been abandoned.

Dating of the sites is currently based of typology of the flint tools and on two radiocarbon dates, measured using fragments of charcoal from one of the installations. The dates worked out to 9,120 to 8,900 years ago (calibrated), meaning, around 7,000 years BCE.

The unusual location of the sites, their low, symbolic nature and the unique stone objects exclude the possibility that they were used for habitation. Rather, they were built on the mountains for cultic purposes only, explains Avner.

The earliest pilgrimage?

Most of the sites were built on comparatively flat small areas on the slopes, where some dozens of people could congregate, most probably extended families. A broad panoramic view of the desert can be seen from most of the sites: possibly the open view may have played a role in selecting their location.

Since the mountains are unsuitable for habitation, the sites actually present the earliest evidence for pilgrimage, known later in many different cultures.

Based on archaeological evidence, anthropological studies and ancient Near Eastern texts, albeit of later periods, the researchers propose some interpretations for the sites’ design and contents.

Briefly, the elongated cell pointing to the circle symbolized the male and female fertility organs, the phallus and vulva. Regular masseboth represented deities while groups of masseboth represented ‘organic’ groups of deities known in the ancient Near East from dedication inscriptions, mythological texts and artistic presentations (statues, reliefs, figurines and so on.). These indicate that the Neolithic desert people already had a complex pantheon long before the emergence of writing around 3000 BCE.

The anthropomorphic stone images represented the ancestors (the dead), which were worshiped in almost every traditional society, up to modern time. The buried stone objects, mainly those with head down, symbolized death.

Altogether, the sites combine two opposite sets of symbols, fertility and death. Combination of both is actually characteristic of ancestor cults, but it bears stressing that for desert societies, these two aspects were not contradictory. Rather, they formed a cyclical perception of life and death, several millennia before this philosophy-theology first appeared in the fertile countries.

They needed a god

The numbers of Neolithic cult installations recorded so far, in only a small part of the southern Negev, stands in a sharp contrast to the very small number of contemporary habitation sites known in the entire Negev: only thirty.

Two preliminary conclusions emerge. One is that the desert population was much greater than that deduced from the number of known habitations. Second, as early as 9,000 years ago, the desert people already had a well-established religion, earlier then the peoples of the fertile lands.

Indeed, hundreds of cult sites were already recorded in the Negev before the present survey, but they were dated from 6000 BCE and later. Therefore, the “eruption” of cult sites was thought to follow an economical revolution- the adoption of farming and herding by the desert people (about a millennium later then in the fertile zone). Now, it seems that this “eruption” of cult sites preceded the major economic-cultural change, so another explanation for the religious revolution must be looked for.

The recent discoveries opened new ‘windows’ into ancient desert life and into the cognitive-spiritual domain of the ancients in general. However, they also opened new questions.

For example, what made the desert people blaze a trail in spiritual-philosophical existence? Possibly, the answer lies in the unending unpredictability of desert life, mainly regarding rain, the primary source of life. Attempting to overcome this difficulty, the people may have invoked the nature powers, the gods, more intensively then others. This led them to develop a high religious creativity, which eventually gave them the power to influence the peoples of the fertile lands with their theological ideas.

This last point directly concerns Israel, since the Israelite culture and religion is deeply imbedded with desert lore - much more than one could expect from 40 years of wandering in the desert following the exodus from Egypt.

So far, the Neolithic cult sites have only been examined on the surface. Once they can be excavated, they will surely better illuminate the past cultures, and the evolution of the ancient religions.

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