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The Near (or Middle) East is an ambiguous term that refers to Southwest Asia eastwards from the Mediterranean up to and including Iran. The region encompasses Anatolia, the Levant, Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Arabia and, sometimes, Transcaucasia. Prehistoric research throughout the region has been patchy, with a notable historical bias on the Levant (as an offshoot from “biblical” archaeology); this encompasses the area bounded between the Taurus/Zagros and the Red Sea on the one hand, and the Mediterranean and the Arabian Desert on the other. Relatively little research was conducted throughout much of Anatolia or Iran, although this has begun to change in recent years. Within the Arabian Peninsula, Late/Terminal Pleistocene research is almost nonexistent.
Pioneering prehistoric research in the Near East was Eurocentric in outlook, as demonstrated by the initial unilinear six-stage model proposed for the Upper Palaeolithic of the Levant by Neuville (1934) and modified by Garrod (1951). While their model was based on cave and rock shelter sequences in Mount Carmel and the Judean Desert, the nomenclature used was originally European, as were the criteria for defining the various local entities through the sequence. Indeed, even much later, changes and variants observed in the local archaeological record often continued to be measured against the European “yardstick” (e.g., Bordes 1977).
How can one begin to address the questions pertinent to the ongoing discussion on religion, property, and power at early Neolithic Çatalhöyük? It seems that a productive avenue is to stand back and consider how Çatalhöyük integrates within the broader perspective of Southwest Asian (Near Eastern) Neolithization processes. Nevertheless, such an effort with regard to every aspect of human existence is a mighty endeavor, and certainly well beyond the scope of a single article, not to mention the humble competence of its authors. Given the special nature and prominence of burials at Çatalhöyük, we have chosen to focus specifically on that aspect of community behavior. We shall provide a background based on data from earlier periods within the broader region of Southwest Asia (the Near East), and most especially the southern Levant.
Burial practices are generally considered to reflect aspects of the symbolic/spiritual worldview of the populations involved. It has often been suggested that with the advent of sedentism and the beginnings of agricultural production (plant and animal domestication) there were significant changes in social organization and cohesion. Yet from the very beginning of our essay, we can state that the description of burial practices from the Late Epipaleolithic Natufian (as well as the scarce earlier evidence) through the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) (and even Pre-Pottery Neolithic B [PPNB] and later) in the southern Levant indicates “business as usual,” in the sense that we can observe the same marked variability (of the same components more or less) continuing unchanged all through the period considered as revolutionary, encompassing changing paradigmatic worldviews. We shall attempt to relate to this issue of variability in the discussion following the presentation of the data.