Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture

Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture

Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture

Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture


As the nomadic hunters and gatherers of the ancient Near East turned to agriculture for their livelihood and settled into villages, religious ceremonies involving dancing became their primary means for bonding individuals into communities and households into villages. So important was dance that scenes of dancing are among the oldest and most persistent themes in Near Eastern prehistoric art, and these depictions of dance accompanied the spread of agriculture into surrounding regions of Europe and Africa. In this pathfinding book, Yosef Garfinkel analyzes depictions of dancing found on archaeological objects from the Near East, southeastern Europe, and Egypt to offer the first comprehensive look at the role of dance in these Neolithic (7000-4000 BC) societies. In the first part of the book, Garfinkel examines the structure of dance, its functional roles in the community (with comparisons to dance in modern pre-state societies), and its cognitive, or symbolic, aspects. This analysis leads him to assert that scenes of dancing depict real community rituals linked to the agricultural cycle and that dance was essential for maintaining these calendrical rituals and passing them on to succeeding generations. In the concluding section of the book, Garfinkel presents and discusses the extensive archaeological data-some 400 depictions of dance-on which his study is based.


In this book I deal with a subject that has never been investigated before: dance at the beginning of agriculture. At first glimpse it seems that nothing can be said on such an elusive subject and that it lies beyond the boundaries of knowledgability. However, as we shall see below, the earliest art scenes in the ancient Near East and southeast Europe depict dancing. In the eighth to the fourth millennia BC this subject appears in many variations, covering a vast geographical expanse: the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, the Balkans, Greece, the Danube basin, and Egypt. There is plenty of evidence for this activity, almost four hundred depictions of dance are relevant to our study. Thus, dancing is the oldest and one of the most persistent themes in Near Eastern prehistoric art, and this theme spreads with agriculture into surrounding regions of Europe and Africa.

Dance, beside being a subject of enquiry in its own right, is used here also as a medium that sheds light on other interesting topics: the beginning of artistic scenes in the ancient Near East and southeast Europe, public calendrical rituals of early farmers, and various cognitive aspects concerning the dancing motif. The principal strategies used to promote the bonding of individuals into communities, and of individual households into villages, were public assemblies for the purpose of religious ceremonies. The archaeological examples discussed in this work are pictorial displays of this activity and shed light on it. The importance of these ceremonies is also borne out by ethnographic observations of modern pre-state communities, in which dance is indeed the most important component in religious ceremonies.

In periods before schools and writing, community rituals, symbolized by dance, were the basic mechanisms for conveying education and knowledge to the adult members of the community and from one generation to the next. The lengthy duration of dance depiction as a dominant artistic motif, together with its dispersion across broad geographical expanses (from west Pakistan to the Danube basin), testifies to the efficiency of the dancing motif as one of the most powerful symbols in the evolution of human societies.

Dance has been defined as a

complex form of communication that combines the visual, kinesthetic,
and aesthetic aspects of human movement with (usually) the aural

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