one will ever know when someone first raised arms into the
air, pivoted and took a few light steps this way and that
— and danced.
The birds and bees, those exhibitionists, were doing it
their way long before. Some mammals were already courting
through an unspoken poetry of motion. Humans may have been
newcomers, but dancing as self-expression probably developed
early in their cultural evolution, perhaps as early as
speech and language and almost certainly by the time people
were painting on cave walls, making clay figurines and
decorating their bodies with ornaments.
Archaeologists are at a loss to know the origins of
dancing in prehistory because they lack direct evidence,
nothing comparable to the art of Altamira or Lascaux. The
best they have been able to do is extrapolate back from the
ritual dances practiced by hunter-gatherer societies that
have survived into modern times.
An Israeli archaeologist now thinks he has pieced
together a significant body of evidence for dancing, if not
at its beginning, at least at a decisive and poorly
understood transitional stage of human culture.
Examining more than 400 examples of carved stone and
painted scenes on pottery from 140 sites in the Balkans and
the Middle East, Dr. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University in
Jerusalem has established what he says is an illustrated
record of dancing from 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. This
record, apparently the earliest of its kind, coincides with
the place and time hunters of wild game and gatherers of
wild plant food first settled into villages and became
pastoralists and farmers.
It may take imagination to see in these depictions the
choreographic ancestry of Astaire and Rogers or the Bolshoi.
Some show only stick figures with triangular heads, and some
headless, in highly schematic scenes that appear to be
dances. Others include figures in a dynamic posture, usually
with bent arms and legs. Several scenes depict people in a
line or completely circling an illustrated vessel, their
hands linked. There is some resemblance here to current folk
dancing or even a Broadway chorus line.
The prevalence of what appear to be dancing scenes in the
earliest art from the ancient Middle East, Dr. Garfinkel
said in a recent interview, suggests the importance of the
dance in these preliterate agricultural communities.
"Dancing was a means of social communication in
prestate societies," he said. "It was part of the
ritual for coordinating a community's activities. `Hey, it's
time to plant the wheat or harvest it.' So everyone would
gather and dance, and the next day they would go to
Then with the emergence of states ruled by kings and
bureaucracies and the invention of writing, all occurring in
the region some 5,000 years ago, dancing scenes all but
disappeared from pottery. People still presumably danced,
Dr. Garfinkel said, but "the dancing motif had lost its
importance in society."
In the just-completed manuscript of a book on dance in
the beginning of farming, Dr. Garfinkel writes: "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
testify to the efficiency of the dancing motif as one of the
most powerful symbols in the evolution of human
Although Dr. Garfinkel has been collecting and evaluating
this evidence for eight years, his interpretation is new to
many art historians and archaeologists. An early version of
the idea was summarized in 1998 in an article in The
Cambridge Archaeological Journal of England. Several
scholars said the suggested link between dance and social
communication in preliterate societies was intriguing and
reasonable, though not proved.
"I think Garfinkel is on the right track," said
Dr. Kent V. Flannery, an archaeologist at the University of
Michigan who specializes in early agriculture.
Dr. Andrew M. T. Moore, an archaeologist and dean of
liberal arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said
he found the hypothesis interesting and worth further study.
But he cautioned against any hasty acceptance of it.
"I would be skeptical of any attempt to go beyond
the depictions to actually reconstruct social
behavior," said Dr. Moore, who has excavated an early
agricultural community in Syria. "The scenes are
extremely difficult to interpret. In the absence of a
written record, we must be cautious in saying what people
were doing and thinking."
Both agreed that dance predated this pottery art by a
great stretch of time, and that it probably had long had a
social function beyond mere entertainment.
Dr. Flannery made a case for why rituals, including
dancing, might have been especially important to what he
called intermediate societies. (No one has seriously
proposed that the availability of beer, discovered in the
same period by clever barley farmers, had set off millennial
For many thousands of years before they settled down, the
thinking goes, people were nomadic hunter- gatherers who
lived in small groups more like extended families. Once some
of them in the Middle East settled into year-round camps,
more than 10,000 years ago, they took up farming and
congregated in village communities of as many as 200 people
representing several families.
Seeking more inclusive bonds, Dr. Flannery suggested,
they probably "invented a fictional common ancestor as
a way to integrate the community." This practice, he
noted, had been observed in the Pueblo villages of the
American Southwest. The villagers believed they were all
descended from a common supernatural ancestor like the Great
Coyote or the Great Eagle, and so all had an obligation to
one another. Their rituals and dances, often elaborate,
reinforced these beliefs.
"Without strong leadership," he said,
"ritual systems take on a huge burden of integrating
Dr. Garfinkel contends that ritual dancing may have been
essential in getting the work done in early agricultural
communities. Hunters and gatherers could go out and almost
immediately have results they could eat. Agriculture, by
contrast, created a "delayed reward economy."
"Before the harvest, there are various tasks to
accomplish: land clearance, seeding and tending the
fields," Dr. Garfinkel pointed out. "Thus, the
beginnings of agriculture involved a cognitive revolution
concerning the relationships between work investment and its
The new economy had to be understood and accepted.
Festivals and ceremonies, including ritual dancing, may then
have invoked supernatural powers to ensure a successful
harvest if everyone pulled together. Nearly all the
depictions, Dr. Garfinkel said, showed dancers in groups.
Dr. Flannery said that Dr. Garfinkel was probably correct
in relating the reduction in the dance motif on pottery to
the rise of civilizations under kings, which occurred around
3000 B.C. with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, a land that is
now southern Iraq, and not long afterward in Egypt.
"Real authority, with people on top issuing orders
that had to be obeyed, had replaced the ritual dancing in
integrating the community," he said.
In time, art reflected the new official reality,
portraying the king and his warriors and workers instead of
dancers. Dr. Flannery offered a modern analogy. In the
Soviet Union, May Day was celebrated with an official parade
of arms on Red Square, a scene amply recorded on film, while
faraway villages still held their peasant dances, which were
not likely to be depicted in art.
In his research, Dr. Garfinkel found the earliest
examples of the dancing motif in art from two 9,000-
year-old sites in the Middle East.
Engraved on a stone basin, excavated at Nevali Cori in
southeastern Turkey, were three human figures in a line,
faces forward, legs wide and arms bent upward. The two outer
figures are larger than the central one, suggesting a scene
of two dancing men flanking a woman. Only in a few cases,
mainly in art from early Egypt, Dr. Garfinkel said, are both
sexes seen dancing together.
At Dhuweila, a small camp site in Jordan, rock carvings
depict a row of four human figures holding hands. They have
elongated necks and heads that appear to be nonhuman. Dr.
Garfinkel thinks they are wearing masks, evidence for which
has been found at other sites.
In later millenniums, most of the dance art has been
found painted on pottery, usually small vessels for eating
and drinking. As Dr. Garfinkel observed, the scenes
emphasize dancing as a community activity. The focus is on a
line or circle of identical figures moving in the same
direction, indicating the importance of the group over the
"Dance is thus an activity through which society
instills collective discipline in its members," he
The dances also appear to take place in the open; in the
few examples where some architectural elements are visible,
the dance seems to be outside them. And since most of the
dancing figures appear as silhouettes, it is possible the
dance is being performed at night. Dr. Garfinkel expressed
surprise that no musical instruments are seen in the motifs.
In his book, Dr. Garfinkel acknowledged that not every
question concerning early dancing could be answered.
"Only a rough general outline can be
reconstructed," he wrote.
He also noted that the dancing scenes on pottery were
made by local potters to be used by members of the same
community. The images must have had immediate and
contemporary meaning. Since the images reflected inside
knowledge, he said, "it is justifiable to consider the
dancing scenes as authentic documentation of dance
Dr. Moore, the Rochester archaeologist, said it might
take time to judge the new interpretation. Although he found
"the proposition an intriguing one," he said,
scholars will probably debate its pros and cons for several
years until someone comes up with more research that
supports or sweeps away the hypothesis.
Such is the usual practice in the scholarship of
prehistory, the attempt to reconstruct a dim past from a few
stones and shards, some of which may reveal people dancing
in the dark through the seasons of life and toil in early