Some Prehistoric Anatolians Learned to Farm 10,000 Years Ago, Others Thought It Silly

Compelling archaeological evidence shows that the Neolithic people of Boncuklu developed farming by themselves, not from migrants, but their neighbors in Pinarbasi would have none of it

Remains of a Neolithic home in Boncuklu, Turkey, some 10,000 years old
Prof. Douglas Baird

When humans figured out how to farm food rather than spear or collect it is fiercely debated. So is how agricultural knowledge spread. Now a paper published this week suggests that hunter-gatherers on the Anatolian plateau in Turkey started farming 10,000 years ago by learning from the neighbors rather than from, say, migrants swarming in with hoes in hand.

Until now farming had been assumed to have spread through migration, explains the paper published this week in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But evidently there were villages that rejected the newfangled sow-and-grow techniques.

Let’s start with the village of hunter-gatherers called Boncuklu. It and similar communities initiated (started) farming in central Anatolia some 10,000 years ago by adopting crops from areas to their south and east, Prof. Douglas Baird of the University of Liverpool tells Haaretz.

At Boncuklu, the researchers found stone tools different from the Levantine style. They also found burned seeds and remains of wheat chaff – and they found weeds known to have plagued early farming sites.

The abundance of the opportunistic pests suggests they flourished as the ancients cultivated their crops. Similar evidence of proto-weeds was used in Israel to demonstrate early cultivation as much as 23,000 years ago near the Kinneret – the Sea of Galilee.

The Anatolian plateau folk seem also to have begun adopting the sheep and more commonly, the goat, the archaeologists deduced from analysis of bones. This seems to be closer to when livestock were domesticated – though each species was evidently domesticated at somewhat different times in different places.

Baird agrees with the consensus that cultivation of plants began in the Fertile Crescent, including the Levant and northern Mesopotamia, and the Zagros Mountains of today’s Iran. Only later would it reach central Turkey, he says, though adds: “Animal herding may well be a rather different situation.”

The clue of the nonexistent villages

The evidence that farming wasn’t brought to central Anatolia by migrants but developed among the indigenous population relies on analysis of stone tools and DNA, Baird explains.

Boncuklu is just one of several central Anatolian sites that have undergone archaeological exploration and analysis. All had the same indigenous material culture, especially stone tools, and were clearly part of a local tradition extending back 5,000 years earlier, Baird says.

This central Anatolian material culture is not at all like that of the early farming communities in northern Syria or southeast Turkey.

Also, if farmers had migrated to the plateau and colonized it, their remains likely would have turned up in the future. “Since we are largely talking settled village communities, you would expect to see their sites in the archaeological record, exactly as we do see with the colonization of Cyprus in the early Neolithic,” Baird says.

Which brings us to genetics. “In addition, the ancient DNA evidence now clearly shows that there is a distinctive local gene pool in the early Neolithic at places like Boncuklu, different from the genetics of Levantine Neolithic populations,” he says.

Moreover, this hunter-gatherer-turned-farming population would live on. The team discovered that the Neolithic Anatolian gene pool contributed substantially to later Neolithic populations in central and western Anatolia and indeed to the first farmers of southeast Europe, Baird says. “So I think we can say that there weren’t lots of Levantine migrants running around in central Anatolia at the beginnings of the Neolithic there,” he adds.

Signs of prehistoric ‘trade’

So in short, weeds and wheat suggest the good burghers of Bocuklu, who lived in mud-brick homes, may have still subsisted mainly from hunting and gathering, but were starting to farm 10,000 years ago. And analysis of stone tools and genetics suggests these people picked up the knack rather than had the knowledge imported from even earlier farmers in the Fertile Crescent.

Farming know-how may have come with prehistoric “trading” – the exchange of materials, artifacts and even possibly people. Trading brides seems to have been not rare, from antiquity to this day.

“We have evidence, for example, of obsidian moving from central Anatolia to the Levant being exchanged between communities, and Mediterranean seashells used as beads coming from the south coast of Turkey onto the Anatolian plateau,” Baird says. “We are potentially talking about something akin to trade but without the mercantile/commercial associations of the term. Exchange may have been as much about building social relationships as it was about acquiring materials.”

Still, we can’t even guess how close the communities from which agriculture spread to central Anatolia may have been; our knowledge of early prehistoric sites in these areas is scanty, Baird says.

One unexpected deduction is that the people of central Anatolia seem to have found this lifestyle convenient.

“Unexpectedly, this low-level food production persisted for at least five centuries. Archaeologists usually consider these kinds of food-production systems to be short-lived and transitional, but our research suggests a stable and persistent use of crops and herd animals as a minor part of the economy for a long time. This does not fit existing theory,” says Andrew Fairbairn, the project’s co-director and an associate professor at the University of Queensland.

Farming is for little people?

Fun fact: Just 30 kilometers from Boncuklu lay the contemporary prehistoric hamlet of Pinarbasi, which Baird excavated in 2003 and 2004. The Pinarbasis would have none of this farming frippery, it seems.

“Evidence suggests these communities resisted the adoption of farming and maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, showing the spread of agriculture beyond the Fertile Crescent was neither uniform nor inevitable,” the team wrote.

What? No evidence of farming was found at Pinarbasi. “They must have known about it but decided not to adopt it,” Baird says.

That may not have been a good choice. Boncuklu seems to have survived at least 500 years after Pinarbasi, Baird adds – and its people may be with us to this very day.

“We think that at least elements of the Boncuklu community continued to exist in the region, contributing population to the large site at Catalhoyuk, which is only 10 kilometers away, that follows on immediately after Boncuklu is abandoned,” he says. “People at Catalhoyuk have a lot of domestic and ritual practices very similar to those we see at Boncuklu.”

How many people are we talking about, anyway? Boncuklu and Pinarbasi each probably had between 50 to 150 people at any one time, though obviously it would have varied, Baird notes. And one group seems to have survived, while one may not have.

In other words, while the desultory farming taking place in early Boncuklu was not a major economic activity, it was a local development and may have had enormous consequences for posterity.

The research was conducted by an international team led by Baird and Fairburn with Assistant Professor Gokhan Mustafaoglu and included researchers from Bournemouth University, University College London, the University of Reading, Cornell University, Middle Eastern Technical University Ankara, Trakya University, Bulent Ecevit University Zonguldak, Peking University and Harvard University, as well as the universities of Liverpool and Queensland.