The cultural legacy of the Neolithic in Yemen | Part Four
We are not completely cut off from the cultural legacy of our distant ancestors, who danced and painted and hunted thousands of years ago. Researchers in Yemen believe that some of our present day folk dances evolved from ritual practices that date back to the Neolithic period . In Najran there are a number of rock carvings which show women dancing in lines, their hands held down by their sides in a pose strongly reminiscent of the ardah dance still practiced today. Some female figures, their arms raised aloft, resemble participants in the sharah, a dance that is performed in the south of Yemen at weddings and other important social occasions . Yet other carvings resemble the Sana’a dance, with the figures shown with hands joined and bodies swaying . In this article we trace the vestiges of Neolithic cultural practices in contemporary folk customs, and show that these traditions have roots which go deeper than living memory.
Yemen remained isolated for long periods during the arid climatic phase which began in the seventh millennium BC, circumstances which meant a number of customs and traditional practices evolved and developed while remaining essentially unchanged. With the spread of communications technology and transport in the 1960s, Yemen became open to the outside world for the first time, and local communities were exposed to the forces of modernity and globalization – but in the process lost many of their traditions and inherited beliefs. The survival of certain practices, unchanged over such an extensive period of time, is remarkable in light of these changes.
From nomadism to urbanism: the oldest civilizational conflict
During visits to the Hadramawt desert in 2017 and to Ma’rib in 2018, I noticed that the Bedouin in these areas avoided working in agriculture, leaving this to the villagers and farmers in the valleys. This was particularly evident in Al Faw, an agricultural valley directly beneath the Ma’rib Dam, where land is owned and worked exclusively by non-Bedouin. Talking to a man from Harib, an agricultural valley on the outskirts of Ramlat Al Sab’atayn, I was told that the Bedouin of the region, whether they live in the desert or the Faw valley itself, hold the farming population in contempt, and that a Bedouin working the fields brings shame to himself and his tribe. The same thing was true in Hadramawt, where farmers told me that the Bedouin despise them, even though they come to them with their camels to restock with water and to buy vegetables.
I found that I could only understand this conflict between two distinct social classes by tracing its ancient roots. In my view, it has its origins in pre-history, when groups of nomadic hunters and more settled gatherers moved into agriculture during the seventh millennium BC . Villages dating back to the mid-Neolithic era have been unearthed in the Khawlan, near land that would have then been agricultural at that time. With the dawn of the sixth millennium BC , the population was shifting from opportunistic hunting to herding and raising livestock. Nevertheless, many hunter-gatherers in low-lying desert regions continued with their previous way of life. Field studies have determined that they were still living as hunters in the third millennium BC , and may have regarded with disdain those whose lifestyles were determined by the ‘modern’ inventions of pastoralism and agriculture.
This conflict, which is still evident in Yemen, is not peculiar to the country. It has always been the subject of fierce debate between thinkers and philosophers around the world. As Rousseau said of the first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine’, and found people naïve enough to believe him –the man who was the true founder of civil society: “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” .
The Bedouin today do not live exactly as their Neolithic forebears did. No longer hunters, they rely on the food and trade based on animal husbandry: camels in the case of Yemeni and Middle Eastern Bedouin, horses in the case of nomads from Siberia and northern China, and buffalo and cows in Africa.
The sacred ibex and the persistence of dance-based ritual
The ibex is an animal of central importance to the Stone Age in Yemen. Initially, ibex populations spread throughout what is today Yemeni territory, before becoming confined to the Hadramawt plateau. Neolithic populations represented them in numerous rock carvings and paintings: ibex appear in 21 per cent of all rock art currently discovered in the country . These ancient Yemenis saw the ibex as a symbol of strength and perfect beauty; one can easily imagine that a creature which spends its life scaling the steepest and most inaccessible cliff faces, enduring aridity and extreme heat, could stand for values such as fortitude and courage.
These populations also had a clear preference for ibex meat in their diets, and it seems to have occupied a prime position in the imagination of hunter communities . To these Yemenis, the ibex was a dream, a hope, and a matter of life and death. They would roam their territories, hoping to encounter one and bring it down, thereby saving their tribes and families from starvation and destruction . And once killed, the ibex would be brought back to camp and the hunter – victorious, infused with feelings of strength and indomitability – would wear the skin and place the skull on his head in an attempt, perhaps, to absorb some of its traits, and to establish his prowess in the eyes of the hungry tribe, which would then acclaim him . This is one way to imagine the origin of the ibex dance, which is performed to this day, particularly in Hadramawt.
But though the ibex was the preferred prey of Neolithic hunters, researchers believe it is unlikely that its importance to these communities could have derived solely from an appreciation of its beauty and durability. In other words, this admiration must have had a religious component.
As agriculture took root and expanded, the ibex became associated with this way of life. The belief went that failure to hunt the ibex at certain seasons of the year would bring down divine anger and punishment . Textual inscriptions from the period link ibex hunting with worship , and show that the ibex had shed its secondary symbolism to become a symbol of the gods themselves. The inhabitants of the Qataban kingdom, who were moon-worshippers, saw the ibex’s curved horns as expressions of the crescent moon . Sabaean and Minaean texts mythologize the hunting of the ibex, but also suggest a symbolic, sacred aspect to the animal itself, something that is particularly evident in architectural decoration and sculpture: ibex shown standing, sprawled and bound and as elements in patterned reliefs and decorating the bases of bronze chalices . In many areas of the country, such as Hadramawt, Saada and Sana’a, ibex horns are still set in the outer walls of houses as a protection against the evil eye .
Ritual dance: a strange instance
In his book A Page from Yemen’s History and the Story of My Life, the Yemeni historian Mohammed bin Ali al-Akwa describes a strange dance he saw performed by the inhabitants of the city of Dhamar in the early twentieth century. Al-Akwa says that it involved two principal dancers: a woman dressed in rags, her skin daubed black with charcoal, and a man dressed in rams’ wool from his feet to his neck and wearing a mask made of the hollowed-out head of a ram, giving him a frightening appearance. Four other men arranged themselves into the semblance of a camel, standing in a line with two rods of wood balanced on their shoulders, a ‘fur hide’ made of wool laid over this frame, and a camel’s tail hanging behind. These men carried the principal male dancer through the streets of the city, as though on horseback or camelback, to the songs and chants of the women and the cries of young children .
Al-Akwa categorizes these rituals as a type of traditional game, and pays particular attention to the relationship of the woman with the frightening male figure: a relationship of bride and groom. But he specifically identifies the animal the man is dressed as, as a sheep or ram, not an ibex, though it is a fact that the Yemeni uplands where this took place are not a natural habitat for wild sheep, but rather for the Nubian ibex. Had the Yemeni uplanders confused the issue, or is it simply that al-Akwa has failed to distinguish between a ram and an ibex? It is worth noting that in the preface to his book he states that he is going to employ dialect terms as he finds them, so in this case khurouf, which properly means ‘sheep’, may have a broader signification. In any case, the scene as described presents us with a couple, the husband dressed as an ibex, which is one of the defining traits of the ibex dance referred to above. Al-Akwa’s ‘game’ may be an ancient folk evolution of the role of the ibex in marriage celebrations, where the ibex dance is performed and an ibex slaughtered.
In Hadramawt, there are still those who embark on seasonal ibex hunts, and if the ibex has lost much of its ritual significance, it is still held up as a symbol of beauty. For more than 10,000 years, the hunters of Hadramawt have enacted rituals around the hunting of ibex. Scholars believe that the dances we perform now are the same dances performed by our distant ancestors in the Neolithic era. Just like today, the ancient rituals of the ibex dance were performed in a particular, celebratory context , specifically the ibex hunting season, and the ibex was slaughtered to be consumed during weddings and other special occasions . With the ibex population in decline, under pressure from hunting and the reduction of verdant habitats, these traditions may soon disappear.
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