Were the First Farmers in Prehistoric Turkey?

First farmers in southern Turkey were local hunter-gatherers, not migrants from the Levant who brought farming techniques

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Catalhoyuk, a Neolithic site in Anatolia that in and of itself, suggests agriculture had already begun.
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

At some point in human history, we learned how to grow food rather than relying on hunting animals and gathering anything edible that couldn’t run away. The earliest signs of cultivation, far shy of subsistence levels, were found in Ohalo, northern Israel, dating back about 23,000 years. But orderly, intentional, planned sowing and reaping (aka agriculture) is thought to go back no more than about 12,000 years and to have developed in the Fertile Crescent of southwest Asia, a region that includes parts of Israel, Iran, Iraq, Jordan — and southern Turkey.

Among the open questions are exactly where this advent of agriculture happened; why it happened; when; and, once it happened, how it spread. Did early farmers prosper and multiply and then migrate, bringing their new knowledge with them? Or was it cultural diffusion?

Based on a genetic study published in Nature Communications and theories of Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, proper agriculture per se may well have begun in southeastern Turkey — Anatolia — possibly with prehistoric Iran involved too.

The study proves that at least 10,000 years ago, local hunter-gatherers in Anatolia changed their subsistence strategy and began to farm, as opposed to learning the practice from migrants from the Levant. Some 2,500 years later, the knowledge of agriculture did spread through migration, it seems (based on unrelated work published in Science). Migrants from none other than Anatolia spread north and west, bringing their specialist skills with them to mainland Europe. In fact, when the farmers migrated from Anatolia to mainland Europe in the eighth millennium B.C.E., they apparently overwhelmed the local hunter-gatherers — replacing them almost entirely.

It has not and probably cannot be proved that it was Anatolia where farming began. But the archaeological evidence indicates that Anatolia had one of the earliest farming communities in the world.

The study elucidating that the first farmers were local hunter-gatherers who adopted newfangled notions was done by the archaic genetic experts at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Leipzig, working in collaboration with researchers from the United Kingdom, Turkey and Israel.

Strangers in a strange land

The Danube feeding into the Black SeaCredit: NASA Earth Observatory

In 2009, a paper reported the evidence that migrating Anatolian farmers replaced the hunting-gathering communities in mainland Europe. In other words, the ancestors of modern Europeans weren’t the original European hunter-gatherers. Wide swaths of central and northern Europe were colonized by incoming farmers from southern Turkey. Migration, not cultural diffusion, drove the development of farming in Europe. Moreover: “The single largest component of the ancestry of modern-day Europeans comes from these Anatolian farmers,” the researchers wrote.

Given the evidence of early cultivation in the Levant — seeds and villages and flint-bladed sickles in Israel; flatbread in Jordan going back 14,400 years, and more — it would have been plausible to think that migrating farmers from the Levant brought the knowledge to Anatolia.

But that isn’t what happened, it seems. The conclusion that local Anatolian hunter-gatherers abandoned the road for the hoe by themselves is based on fresh analysis of eight prehistoric skeletons: five from Turkey, plus the first genome-wide data from a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer; one from Israel; and one from Jordan.

Plastered skulls, found prominently displayed in the Neolithic site of Yiftahel in the Galilee, dated to 9,000-8,500 years agoCredit: Israel Hershkovitz

The 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gatherer came from Pinarbasi, by the Black Sea. The five Neolithic Anatolians came from Boncuklu, near the Aegean Sea (almost 700 kilometers, or 435 miles, away from Pinarbasi).

The Israeli sample was early Neolithic (from the “pre-pottery Neolithic B” period), dating to about 8,500 years ago, and came from Kfar Hahoresh. It was a plastered skull. The Jordanian one hailed from Ba’ja and was about 9,000 years old.

The data from these eight bodies spans the advent of agriculture in the region, the researchers say. They then compared the data with data from 587 other ancient individuals and 254 present-day people.

To be clear: It isn’t that the hunter-gatherers of Anatolia never mixed with anyone else. The genetic analysis does show some intermixing with the neighbors. By the time farming had taken root in Anatolia, around 10,300 to 9,800 years ago, the locals had about a 10 percent genetic contribution from people in Iran and the Caucasus, the researchers found. But all the rest was Anatolian hunter-gatherer.

The early Anatolian farmers were direct descendants of a gene pool that remained relatively stable for at least 7,000 years, despite climate changes, the vicissitudes of life and whatnot.

“Our results provide additional, genetic support for previous archaeological evidence that suggests that Anatolia was not merely a stepping stone in a movement of early farmers from the Fertile Crescent into Europe,” says Max Planck’s Choongwon Jeong, co-senior author of the study. “Rather, it was a place where local hunter-gatherers adopted ideas, plants and technology that led to agricultural subsistence.”

By about 9,000 years ago, however, about 20 percent of the Anatolian farmers’ ancestry came from the Levant. It is not clear, says Dr. Johannes Krause of Max Planck, whether that was due to migration or just seepage.

And there is also silent, indirect evidence supporting the theory that farming all began in the south of today's Turkey.

Lizard carved onto one of the T-shaped pillars unearthed at Gobekli TepeCredit: Erkcan

The silent evidence of Göbekli Tepe

On a windswept hill in southeastern Turkey stands what some call the world’s first temple. Construction at Göbekli Tepe, with its painstakingly carved pillars featuring animals and human representations, apparently began around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago. Some even think one of the carved pillars — the so-called Vulture Stone — shows a comet strike that caused a cold snap in the northern hemisphere.

Animal depictions in "world's first temple" - Gobekli TepeCredit: Teomancimit

Göbekli and other monumental edifices in the region, at Catalhöyük, for instance, changed views of prehistoric humanity: They weren’t (necessarily) oafs killing goats and each other with clubs. They could collaborate, make fine art and worship it. The question has been who, in southern Turkey, “they” were.

Could a monument involving vast labor such as Göbekli Tepe have been made by hunter-gatherers? The thinking was no: They existed in relatively small groups of 25 to 50 people at most, who would roam with the animals they preyed on and couldn’t organize the labor required to build a site like that — let alone more than one, or sustain a large community.

Given the existence of Göbekli Tepe and its dating, thinking then began to develop that hunter-gatherers were more organized and hierarchical than had been thought. (A theory that there had been some sort of advanced wondrous civilization over 12,000 years ago that left monumental remains from Turkey to Japan has been debunked.)

Tel Aviv University’s Hershkovitz thinks that Göbekli Tepe, Catalhöyük and the others attest that in fact, they weren’t built by hunter-gatherers after all but by communities that had begun to master the art of farming.

Identifying the very earliest stages of anything is a problem, says Hershkovitz. “Say you’re talking about cultivation or, more accurately, domestication of a plant or animal. Take the goat: Now, we know from genetic studies that today’s domestic goat arose from the Iranian bezoar — but how can an archaeologist tell that a given ancient skeleton is a domestic goat or a wild goat?

“There are morphological differences between domestic and wild, but from wild to domestic there are intermediate stages that are really hard to tell. … Is the goat still wild? Or domestic? Is the wheat wild, or domestic?”

At Ohalo, northern Israel, we find early signs of intentionally planting wild wheat 23,000 years ago — as shown by Prof. Dani Nadel and others at the University of Haifa — Hershkovitz says. But go figure when the crops, from wheat to barley to fava beans, were domestic-type.

Plastered skull from the Neolithic period, Hula Valley: A statement of ownership?Credit: Hanay

Hershkovitz personally thinks the “signs of the beginning” for agriculture and domestication in Israel date to the end of the Natufian period, around 15,000 to 13,000 years ago. And in contrast to the Israel-centric set, Hershkovitz doesn’t think Israel was necessarily the cradle of farming.

His argument is not botanic, like the Ohalo case, or zoological: it’s archaeological.

“I think the source, the origin, of most agriculture is Anatolia, not Israel,” he tells Haaretz. “Israel was marginal, compared with developments in southern Turkey and Iran and Iraq, where there are huge sites.”

How do we know this? “The intensity of the Neolithic and pre-Neolithic sites in Anatolia is much more massive than in Israel. The structures are much more massive, the culture is much richer … they are almost like cities! The Neolithic sites in Israel are small, not impressive in structure or size like in Anatolia. You can sustain a large population only if you grow food yourselves,” he explains. “If you depend on nature, the group size must necessarily be smaller.”

In Anatolia, the Neolithics were investing in huge buildings, public buildings, and that’s a parameter that supersedes botanic and climatic arguments, Hershkovitz claims. They began farming, which spread from there, he suggests.

The vulture stone, thought by some to depict a prehistoric comet strikeCredit: Klaus-Peter Simon

“Generally, we were always marginal to the huge civilizations, such as the Egyptians,” Hershkovitz adds. “Catalhöyük is a fantastic example and there are a lot more like it; we have nothing like that in Israel.”

Not quite home alone

Neolithic Anatolian culture did have Levantine elements, and Persian too. There were rich cultural and material ties around the Mediterranean basin, going back thousands and thousands of years, before the Copper Age.

Take stone tools made of volcanic glass found in Israel: the obsidian that had to have originated in Turkey. And if there were trade ties, there was intermarriage, Hershkovitz says.

"But Israel was at the margins of the population whose core was in Anatolia," Hershkovitz sums up. And by the time a man died 8,500 years ago, and was buried, and decayed, and underwent secondary burial in Kfar Hahoresh — during which his skull was severed from the rest of his remains and was plastered — agriculture had possibly arrived in Israel too.

The Israeli contribution to the study was, as said, a plastered skull found in Kfar Hahoresh, which dated to the early Neolithic. There is even some thinking that Kfar Hahoresh served as a sort of mortuary site for the region.

“Mortuary” is rather more ambiguous a term than one might think.

Conceptually, the distinction between dead and alive has radically changed, Hershkovitz explains. Today we have cemeteries and houses which are very different things, but that is a very late distinction, according to the professor. “It didn’t exist in the past,” he says. “In the Neolithic period, a dead person would be buried under the floor of the home and remain part of the family. The family would continue to consult the ancestors. In the Neolithic period, the dawn of agriculture, what happened is” — evidently — “they started to extract the skulls from the grave, and make masks of them using chalk.” Hence the term "plastered skulls".

And why would they do that? For the same reason farmers today put up signs: we have become territorial. (“The Yochais live here in love and harmony. Keep out!”)

“We clear land and sow it and harvest. And in prehistory, when there was no central government and no writing, how could they mark ownership of land? With plastered skulls,” Hershkovitz suggests. “It was a way to say, this land is my land because my grandfather lived here and his grandfather, down the generations.”

Judging by how many have been found, plastered skulls were “popular” in the Neolithic, but not before or after, Hershkovitz points out. They date roughly to the first farming. When they were still running around throwing stone-tipped spears at aurochs and deer, they didn’t need an ancestor cult to shore up their right to a specific spot.