The Boncuklu Project; Agriculture in Anatolia initiated by indigenous peoples, not Fertile Crescent migration

Small scale agricultural farming was first initiated by indigenous communities living on Turkey’s Anatolian plateau, and not introduced by migrant farmers as previously thought, according to a research by the University of Liverpool.

Professor Douglas Baird and his team discovered the presence of carbonised seeds and phytoliths of wheat chaff at Boncuklu, along with agricultural weeds commonly found in early farming sites, suggesting the cultivation of crops did take place.

NEOLITHIC REVOLUTION AND THE DISCOVERY OF AGRICULTURE

Additionally, nitrogen isotopes from sheep and goat bone collagen indicate very small scale experimentation with the herding of these animals.

Analysis of stone tools and ancient DNA suggests an indigenous population, rather than migrants from earlier agricultural communities within the Fertile Crescent.

Professor Baird said: “Confounding the expectations of some archaeologists that the migrant farmer brought farming to central Anatolia, our evidence shows that the site of Boncuklu was occupied by long present, local Anatolian communities who mostly hunted and gathered a wide range of wetland animals and plants, but adopted farming from areas to the south and east through exchange.

“Although used; cultivated plants, wheat, lentils and peas were not fully domesticated and contributed only a small amount to the diet of the Boncuklu community.”

Project Co-Director, University of Queensland Associate Professor Andrew Fairbairn, said: “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.

The team contrasted Boncuklu with the nearby site of Pınarbaşı, excavated by Professor Baird in 2003-4. Lying 30km south of Boncuklu in Karaman Province, 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.

Professor Baird, from the University’s Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, said: “Intriguingly, while Pınarbaşı was abandoned and its people disappeared from the archaeological record, we believe that the way of life we see at Boncuklu contributed directly to that conducted at the slightly later Neolithic settlement, Çatalhöyük.

“Farming at Boncuklu was a relatively minor economic activity 10,000 years ago, but its adoption may have had both immediate and long-term consequences for the particular communities who committed to it.”

(Source: https://www.archaeology.wiki/blog/2018/03/22/agriculture-initiated-by-indigenous-peoples-not-fertile-crescent-migration/)

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NovoScriptorium: Now, let’s have a look at some official published information on the ongoing Project at Boncuklu.

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There has been much controversy about the mechanisms by which the earliest farming spread around the world. There are few sites where we are able to observe direct evidence for the earliest adoption or development of farming and a focus on how the spread of farming occurred has distracted from understanding how the adoption of farming affected those caught up in the process and changed the relationships between people, plants, animals and landscapes. At Boncuklu we have demonstrated previously the adoption of farming by indigenous central Anatolian foragers (“The Boncuklu Project; the origins of sedentism, cultivation and herding in central Anatolia“, by Baird et al. 2012), so the project now gives us a chance to understand what this uptake of farming meant for such foragers, in terms of their household organisation and practices, engagements with the landscapes, ritual and symbolism, as well as to understand the spread of farming to the west, ultimately into Europe. The ritual and symbolic practices at Boncuklu are especially intriguing given that Boncuklu seems to be a direct predecessor of Çatalhöyük and is located only 9.5km to its north.

A picture is emerging of a site with modest densities of contemporary dwellings. The residential structures were probably grouped together in small clusters around the peripheries of the settlement, with more central areas of the site given over to distinct activities carried out both in the open, where midden deposits were dumped, and also indistinctive types of structures whose use contrasted with that of the structures to the north and south.

Amongst other exciting finds we single out a cache of  Collumbella marine shell beads in a dense spread of mud-brick collapse in Area P. This must have been contained in a small bag carefully deposited or buried in this structural debris. We also found a number of examples of the distinctive decorated grooved stones and plaques which typify the site.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2013 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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For the first time at Boncuklu, this year we documented a large number of burials in the open midden areas of the site. Including two previously located midden burials, we have now identified eight burials in Area M; these were clearly carried out during the accumulation of midden deposits there. It is in this context we should now see the circulation and deposition of skulls in these open areas, reported on previously.

The intercutting of graves, multiple disarticulated burials and skull deposition are distinctive practices associated with these burials outside houses. Thus, these individuals seem to represent distinct mortuary practices peculiar to those buried outside houses. A range of ages and both sexes seem to be represented in these open-area burials, and the frequency and types of grave goods do not seem to be different.

Notable finds this season include a particularly large, ochre-covered axe (15.2cm long) and a large stone polisher, also covered with ochre.

The child burial we excavated in Building 12 had a necklace consisting of over 180 marine shell beads. This further underlines the acquisition of this distant resource and the large-scale circulation of these materials and objects made from them.

Lori Hager continued her examination of fingerprints on the clay objects and figurines from the site. We now have a corpus of over 40 distinct prints and some indication that both the sex and age of the makers of these objects will be identified by this method.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2014 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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There are a number of elements of evidence that suggest the end of the life of a house was a matter of some importance to the household concerned and that ritualised dismantling may have occurred at Boncuklu, as seen later at Çatalhöyük.

The symbolic significance of particular animals, also important later, is clear here. These ‘magical’ practices involve interesting symbolic exchanges – figurines, bone tools and obsidian for posts, canid jaw for human body – potentially designed to satisfy various cosmological forces.

We continued working in Area M to examine a sequence of external areas. In 2014 we found a series of burials in these areas and this year we strengthened the evidence for an area of regular mortuary practice in the open spaces in this part of the site.

We completed excavation of Grave 43 (started last year), confirming that a detached skull had been placed over a large polishing stone and mass of yellow ochre, which in turn had been placed over poorly-preserved human bone, around which were scattered marine shell beads.

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Further work by Jessica Pearson, on a skull excavated last year, confirmed that the head area was covered with red ochre beads and –a surprise – two red ochre pendants/large beads. It is clear that, in terms of grave goods, these open-air burials could be as richly adorned as examples in houses. Indeed they were possibly more richly adorned, providing further evidence for our considerations about who these individuals might have been.

It seems that buildings did occur in these central open spaces, and it appears probable that there was little demarcation of open space, in that domestic structures seem to be found over the whole site and could encroach on previously open spaces. Whilst the use of external areas seems structured, little sign of patterning in the location of structures is suggested by the current evidence.

The team has suggested for some time that the well-modelled figurines that occur throughout the occupation of the site, but especially in the later levels, tend to focus on bellies, buttocks and breasts of older or mature individuals. While the new figurine (found in the TPC area) emphasises legs and buttocks, it also has a very marked pubic triangle although the central vertical line is less carefully executed than the rest of the figurine. The fact that such figurines tend to occur more commonly in the upper levels of the site fits in with other evidence of social changes that emphasises domestic production rather than rituals associated with wild animals.

A remarkable find was made in the North area too. In Building 132 a painted, modelled plaster head with inserted obsidian eyes was found. While a Neolithic statue with obsidian eyes has been found at Şanlıurfa, parallels for the Building 132 head are rare.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2015 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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This year, we excavated three buildings that seem to be variants of typical Boncuklu residential structures. All buildings showed evidence for ritual practice and symbolic elaboration.

In the northern part of Area M we have been excavating structures with particularly silty, coarse plaster floors that must have been roofed, but seem to have had flimsier walls than other buildings and non-standard sets of fixtures within them.

To the north and earlier than Building 24 we excavated a series of midden lenses – a general dump of organic material – in this open space. In the north-central and western parts of the trench we excavated some deeper more massive layers of midden. Some of these had built up against edges lined with matting or layers of vegetation. In these midden layers was a sequence of repeatedly reconstructed hearths, attesting further to very repetitive use of space in open areas as well as within buildings.

Cut into these various middens was a pit with an artefactcache at its base. This pit seems to have been cut at about the same point in the stratigraphy as a number of burials in these external areas. The cache consists of a grooved stone (one of our largest ground-stone axes) covered with ochre, an elongated polisher/hammerstone and, most notably, a particularly long flint blade, by far the longest ever found at the site and of distinctive material and technology. This is clearly a specialist product and an import to the site. So this cache certainly included three exceptionally sized objects. They were all placed on a piece of bone. It is not impossible that this pit is one end of a burial or that it marks special depositions near and associated with burials; more investigation will be required to ascertain which is the case. This further indicates that these open areas in the centre of the site were settings for symbolic practice as well as more mundane activities and rubbish disposal.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2016 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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In 2017 work on site took place in Area P, Area M and a new sector, Area R. In Area P we are investigating a structure, Building 21, with the intention of learning more about the domestic activities undertaken in Boncuklu houses and the deployment of ritual and symbolism within them. In Area M we are investigating open areas between buildings as well as a sequence of buildings that does not appear to be composed of standard domestic houses.

This year we worked on two buildings that seem to be variants of the typical Boncuklu residential structures: Building 21 in Area P and Building 24 in Area M. All buildings showed evidence of ritual practice and symbolic elaboration.

The use of multiple, more or less synchronous, burials is now established as a common feature, both inside houses and externally, at Boncuklu and clearly emphasises how the close personal relationships of the Boncuklu inhabitants were expressed in mortuary practices.

We found further evidence relating to cache pits and ritual deposits in postholes and pits around the edge of the floors of Building 21. This year we found an emptied cache pit, cut by a burial for a perinatal individual. An animal figurine was excavated from a late posthole in 2015 which dates to the end of the use-life of the structure. Conservation of this figurine this year has allowed us to see that this is not a simple zoomorphic form, but has elements of human anatomy as well. This is presumably some sort of ‘mythical’ creature or a symbolic representation of a spirit animal, and thus provides intriguing insight into Neolithic beliefs.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2017 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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This year we found a further example of one of our non-standard, ‘light’ structures – possibly kitchen or work buildings – that predate those we have excavated previously in Area M. This building had no surviving walls, and was characterised, like its successors, by a series of trampled-silt floors, multiple stakeholes and some pits.

We excavated a series of features and deposits in the latter phases of the midden deposit in Area M. These included large multiple-phase hearths with reed linings, preserved as phytoliths (silicified plant cells). These open spaces also housed evidence of the presence of large posts and basket installations.

We continued to excavate a toilet area in the southern part of this open space. The human coprolites from these areas will be a rich source of information about past diets. A study by Michelle Feider (University of Bournemouth) already indicates that a number of coprolites have fish and amphibian remains within them.

We have also continued to find burials in the open spaces at Boncuklu. In Area P we found the burial of a small child, whose head and body were covered with ochre and who was accompanied by obsidian tools as grave goods.

(Source: “The Boncuklu Project 2018 The spread of farming and the antecedents of Çatalhöyük”, by Baird et al.)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

 

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