Çatalhöyük, Archaeology, Violence
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Çatalhöyük, Archaeology, Violence

In 2011, Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,1 arguing we are the beneficiaries of the "long peace." The problem with invoking long periods of peace is that they are often fleetingly ephemeral and can rapidly turn to hostility. The very year the book was published marked the beginning of the Arab Uprisings, unforeseen and unplanned for, apparently without historical precedent or analogy. The spiraling violence and polarization, as well as the accompanying refugee crisis that has followed, have demonstrated this was a questionable, if not illusory designation. This sustained violence has profound effects on social consciousness across the political spectrum, ushering in political movements and providing the impetus for policies limiting political liberties and everyday behavior. And this occurs in spite of global organizations dedicated to peaceful resolution of conflicts, court systems and judiciaries in many parts of the world that invoke penal codes rather than capital punishments, and a world that is both materially wealthy and increasingly technologically sophisticated.

Despite of all of these "civilizing" processes, our time is dominated by military and police killings of suspects and opponents—without due justice— [End Page 23] armed violence in some of the most highly civilized places: on the streets and public gathering places of world capitals and major cities, museums and sites of archaeological and cultural heritage, publishers' offices, schools, beachside resorts, and places of worship, business, and trade. The effects are all the more profound because these are symbolically charged places reflective of prosperity, leisure, and higher-level consciousness. The impact of these events stretches far from their geographical locations and into the lives of even those least directly affected. They debase commerce, psychologically rattle, strike fear, create an atmosphere of unease and suspicion, and denigrate people and groups. These indirect effects are social and structural, altering the interpersonal fabric and institutions that maintain the health and well-being of society.2

Writing in the Cold War atmosphere of the nuclear arms race in the 1970s, René Girard addressed a conundrum: rather than religions having their origins in peace movements, as promoted by world religions and many political groups, he posited that they had their origins in violence. Violence avoided the inflationary spiral of reprisal killings that would erupt in early societies from the killing or injury of a group member in the absence of police forces, developed judiciary systems, and formalized laws to prevent them. From detailed reading of the earliest myths committed to text in plays, poetry, and stories, violence, he hypothesized, could be found in the very foundations of religions.

All of these counter currents beg the question: how can Pinker maintain an argument that the world is more peaceful in the last century or so than it was in the past? The same argument, though this time in reverse, applied until recently to violence in the prehistoric past which was considered to have been a time of peaceful hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies before the evils of civilization and its states developed and brought inter-group conflict in their wake.3 While historical conflicts often lack physical confirmation of source descriptions, prehistory shares an apparent lack of data with many more recent conflicts. In the modern period, regions or entire countries lack the infrastructure to collect and maintain such data, often due to the very violence that envelops them. In many cases, especially civilian casualty statistics, even if collected, they are not published, but most are never counted.4 This lack of evidence greatly colors Pinker's view. Killing at a distance from remote locations means information is sketchy and, quite often, literally fragmented due the destructive explosive forces unleashed, making deciphering them difficult. The high estimates sometimes produced render the individual experience lacking in detail and imperceptible. Moreover, because the full implications of these situations are thus unobtainable these conflicts can neither be easily compared with historically recorded ones, nor can they provide analogies for conflicts of the more distant past. As a [End Page 24] result, we do not have a developed understanding of the physical manifestations by which to identify...