Ancient Greek and Roman historians ventured very few absolute dates in recounting events of great age. And yet several of them —Xanthus, Pliny, Eudoxus, Plutarch—individually and specifically gave dates ranging from 6500 to 6200 BC for the time of Zarathustra (Greek Zoroaster), the legendary Iranian prophet whose missionary-borne message was said to have reached far beyond his native land. Until quite recently these ancient, almost mythic claims could neither be proved nor disproved and have generally been ignored by both the Zoroastrian religion, which places its founder in the middle of the first millennium, c. 630 BC, and modern western scholars, who find that date far too recent and believe Zarathustra is more likely to have lived in the second millennium BC. The archaeological record of Iran offers little support for either of these conventional chronologies, however, while there are unmistakable indications of an ideological change sweeping across Iran and Iraq in the last half of the seventh millennium.
Manifested in dark-light designs on extraordinarily fine ceramics, this new symbolic system accompanied the founding of a multitude of agricultural settlements from Turkmenistan to southeastern Europe, the final phase of the Neolithic Revolution. A thorough comparison of the archaeology of this period with texts from the oral traditions of ancient Persia (modern Iran) suggests that the leader of this new movement was indeed Zarathustra, living at precisely the time in which he was placed by the Greek and Roman historians of antiquity. Modern religious scholars have long been challenged by the lack of reliable information about even the most basic elements of Zarathustra¹s biography. When and where he was born, where he found refuge after being cast out of his homeland, what the early communities of his followers were like, and what might his relationship have been to the Magi (whose order he is said to have founded) are all subjects of intense controversy whose resolution is dependent on the accurate placement of Zarathustra in time.
In the course of his teachings, Zarathustra is known to have urged the individual men and women of his time to choose between asha (right order, associated with light) and drug (bad or false order, associated with darkness). Precisely what action was to be taken by those choosing the path of asha is unclear in the Gathas (archaic hymns of unknown age that are believed to have been composed by the prophet himself), but later Zoroastrian texts repeatedly referred to the essential position of agriculture in the religious life - “He who cultivates grain, cultivates righteousness.” (Vendidad III.3.31) In addition, many scholars believe that the primary struggle addressed by Zarathustra was between agricultural and nomadic ways of life. If the ancient Greek and Roman historians were correct in placing him in the last half of the seventh millennium, the proliferation of new agricultural settlements that sprang up across the Middle East after 6500 BC would suggest that the way of asha lay in cultivating the land - and it was this choice, made again and again by individuals converted into this intensely missionary faith, that reformed and secured the Neolithic Revolution.
The historical impact of that choice, which led to an irreversible spread of the agricultural way of life, attendant increases in population, and ultimately the development of cities, is explored at the end of our investigation - as is the possibility that the teachings of Zarathustra have had an equally profound impact on western religion and philosophy. Historians of the Zoroastrian religion claim that he was the first to give voice to ideas that would become articles of faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The belief in one supreme God, creator of the world, who is opposed by an evil power not within his control is fundamental to Zarathustra’s teachings - as is the vision of a world moving toward a final state of perfection, an idea which today is embedded within the western psyche, fueling our linear sense of time and our faith in infinite progress.
The perspective taken in this book is admittedly unconventional, and the congruence between seventh-millennium archaeological events and Zarathustra¹s teachings might be dismissed as nothing more than extraordinary coincidence were it not for the indications in the literature of antiquity. The Greek and Roman historians in question lived in different centuries and used different points of reference in recording their seventh millennium dates for Zarathustra, making it unlikely that they were all borrowing from some common myth. Only recently have advances in archaeological techniques, including the extension of calibrated carbon-14 readings back into the Neolithic period, enabled us to judge the acuracy of these ancient claims and to give their authors a long-overdue day in court.
The evidence presented here will challenge both the conventional dating of Zarathustra and the widely held view that the spread of farming must be tied to the economics of survival. But if there is any truth in the ancient claims, two of the great puzzles of prehistory - the late-seventh-millennium resurgence of agriculture and the placement in time of one of the world¹s most influential religious leaders - might be resolved as one. Modern translations of the Gathas have corrected Nietzsche¹s fabricated verison of what Zarathustra said. Perhaps modern archaeology can tell us when he spoke.