Where Did Agriculture Begin? In Turkey, 10,500 Years Ago

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What Stone Age inventions are still with us? Leaving the hammer and the knife out of it, the answer is agriculture.

We still eat the same foods we ate when the first farmers coaxed the first crops out of the land, says Prof. Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University: the same cereals, the same legumes.

And where did the first farmers arise? Where were crop plants first domesticated? In what is today southeast Turkey and northern Syria – i.e., the northern Levant. The earliest animal husbandry was also in there, in his opinion.

The goat, the sheep and the cow were domesticated at the same time, starting about 10,500 years ago, give or take a century here or there.

This was the core of what would become farming. And the northern Levant was the location of what Gopher calls the agricultural “big bang” of agricultural spread to the Near East.

Southeast Turkey is also where the extraordinary culture that constructed Göbekli Tepe, Karahan Tepe and a dozen other monumental gathering sites arose, predating agriculture.

The oldest of these hilltop gathering places date to around 12,000 years ago (again give or take a few centuries). Göbekli, Karahan and more were erected by hunter-gatherers, confirms Prof. Necmi Karul, head of the Istanbul University archaeology department and leader of the excavations. These people did not have tamed goats; they had no domesticated sheep or cows; and they did not grow crops. They did settle down, first building stone huts, and later of mud brick.

Yet as that culture disappeared, this is where the domestication of crops and animals began, says Gopher, who is part of a group researching plant domestication, including with Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the University of Haifa and Prof. Shahal Abbo of the Hebrew University. The connection between the two – the disappearance of the Göbekli culture, and advent of a new economy involving domesticated animals and plants – is unclear.

Right across the Mediterranean is Israel, part of the southern Levant. Some say the southern Levant is where crops such as broad beans (fava) were first domesticated, more than 10,000 years ago. It could be, though Gopher says information to back that theory is missing. Domestication starts from a wild ancestor and nobody knows where broad beans were domesticated because we don’t know what its wild ancestor was, he explains. Find that, then you can argue where it was “tamed.”

More recently, it has been claimed that the olive and fig existed in domesticated form in the Jordan Valley in Israel 7,000 years ago, though whether they were domesticated there is another question. Possibly, Gopher agrees. But if looking for the earliest domestication that would, in time, spur proper agriculture, it is to southeast Turkey 10,500 years ago that we must cast our eyes.

Some definitions are appropriate. Domestication refers to adapting wild plants and animals to our convenience. For instance, wild-type wheat is disseminated by the wind, while domestic stays conveniently on the sheaf until we harvest it. Domestic sheep are shorter-legged and furrier and likely more docile than wild-type. Cultivation means that a hunter-gatherer chucked a handful of seeds onto the ground around the hut, but remained dependent on hunting and foraging.

Agriculture is a subsistence way of life. In the Levant, Eurasia, Africa, the Americas – domestication of plants and the transition to agriculture happened at different times.

But were the domestication of plants and then agriculture necessarily drawn-out affairs taking centuries or even millennia, as is widely assumed?

Developing agriculture as a subsistence way of life, supplanting hunting and gathering, surely took ages; but not domestication, in Gopher’s view.

Archaeologists arguing for early cultivation at Ohalo in Israel, for instance, point at a higher than expected presence of domestic-type plants rather than the wild sort at a prehistoric spot; and the higher than expected presence of “proto-weeds” that grew with the crops.

But all natural populations will have some mutant individuals that display “domestic-type” traits. Not every fossilized husk of a grain that isn’t classic wild-type in a prehistoric context is a sign of domestication. Being sensible, when choosing plants to bring home and cultivate, people would notice the potential for the non-wild type that doesn’t shatter in the wind. Then when you toss its seeds onto the ground by the hut, you get plants of that “unnatural” type, Gopher points out: Choosing it, bending over and picking it is a process that takes 30 seconds, not 30 generations.

As for the weeds, identifying weeds of cultivation to the species level is very rare and usually characteristic of fully agricultural times, Gopher explains. So claiming to identify them is specious, he argues. The bottom line is that developing cultivation and then agriculture weren’t prehistoric accidents or happenstance, in his opinion; it was knowledge-driven and conscious.

The discoveries at Göbekli and the similar sites put paid to the notion that agriculture predated settlement. At these sites, settlement predated agriculture, archaeologists agree.

So what is the evidence that domestication of the species we eat today began there?

Karul points to the fertility of the region in the Holocene. Gopher points to the area of Urfa and Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey being the only place where all the ancestral plants of the crops grew: from wheat to barley, to chick peas, lentils, peas and bitter vetch. (For those who wonder what vetch is and if we still eat it, it’s a legume and these days we serve it mainly to animals, not guests.)

The thing is this. Say you domesticate just one species of cereal, or one species of legume, and nothing else: in a bad year, you starve. If you domesticate a bunch of grains and legumes with a range of optimal growth conditions, you will always be able to grow and eat something.

“Ninety percent of food research and 99 percent of agronomical research involves the species domesticated in the Neolithic,” he sums up. If you add animals – sheep, goat, cattle and pig – this will make it stronger.

In China, domestication of crops likewise involved nutritionally complementary species: soybeans and rice; in the Americas, maize and beans, he points out.

The 30-second description aside, why does Gopher so confidently propound that domestication was rapid? It’s the stupid, economy.

Take lentils, he says. As a plant matures, the pods shatter and the seeds (the lentils) fall to the ground. “A wild lentil plant has maybe 10 seeds on it at any given time. You have a brilliant idea and plant them by the house. So I take 10 plants each with 10 seeds and now I have 100 seeds. I plant them and wait for rain.”

But in lentils, it’s a biological fact that germination is around 10 percent, he continues. The rest just lie there dormant in the ground. (They may germinate years later, under the right conditions.) “So with a germination rate of 10 percent, if you take 10 plants and plant 100 seeds you wind up with 10 plants. Conclusion: you worked hard for months and gained nothing. How many years can you persist with this? A thousand years? What are they, dumb?”

No they weren’t, he surmises. So to think domestication and the development of agriculture were protracted, one needs to believe these people were illogical to the point of fatality.

But they knew nature, and wisely chose the species they wanted to domesticate, Gopher posits. They didn’t choose the ratty specimens; they chose ones with high germination rates.

“Hunter-gatherers had hundreds of thousands of years of experience with the plants around them,” he points out.

  Intensive Farming

Note that some of these early crops exist throughout the Middle East and Fertile Crescent, but southeast Turkey is where they all converge, he adds. “Domestication has significant dietetic and agronomic logic – it created a stability that brought us to where we are today. The thing that has been sustaining us for 10,500 years wasn’t coincidence,” he says.

Genetic analysis seeking original populations also points to southeast Turkey, he adds: “Take 100 populations of wheat, barley or pea, and look for the original population that was domesticated. We find it in southeast Turkey.”

Meanwhile, there is no evidence supporting the protracted model of domestication, Gopher claims, though creating a society with sustainable systems that produce surpluses surely took a long, long time.

It bears adding that visiting southeast Turkey today, climbing the slopes leading to the monumental sites of Göbekli and Karahan Tepe, looking at the sunblasted, barren rocky hills and thinking of this as the birthplace of life as we know it, one raises an eyebrow.

But in the Holocene, this area was lush and beautiful, a regular paradise. The land was forested and thronged with animals. What happened?

The climate changed; precipitation was reduced; people cut down the trees and hunted the animals; the soil washed down from the hills into the valleys and today the local farms in the valleys, growing mainly cotton and peppers, are watered chiefly by irrigation from the Euphrates.

So, game over? Case closed? Domestication and agriculture began in southern Turkey, not Israel or anywhere else in the area? In Gopher’s opinion, the case for southern Turkey (the northern Levant) is clear.

Why the Neolithic people embarked on this new economic form, the agricultural revolution, is a matter of faith, he says.

To be sure, something extraordinary happened in Neolithic southeast Turkey resulting in the construction of Göbekli and the other sites 12,000 years ago. They are completely different from hunter-gatherer sites known anywhere else.

Hunter-gatherer sites are known in the hundreds throughout the southern Levant and they are usually small camps, not monumental gathering sites featuring gigantic monoliths as much as 6 meters (nearly 20 feet) tall, covered in animal and human reliefs.

Surely, hunter-gatherers did have sophisticated communities; at least some must have; but in the southern Levant there is no evidence whatsoever of monumental construction by them. Whatever they built was small-scale and ephemeral, Gopher says.

But in southeast Turkey they did exactly that, creating monumental structures for over a thousand years before animal and plant domestication.

And then what happened? We don’t know, but it was, as Gopher points out, a period of profound societal change in the region. And amid some sort of instability, something else apparently happened that led to domestication and, eventually, to the revolution that created a new world of food producers.

In later years, as the early farmers of southeast Turkey multiplied and spread, toward Iran, the Indus Valley and Europe, they brought this know-how with them; descendants of these people reached the very edges of the continent, populating Neolithic France and Britain.

And this is how, somehow, these dramatic cultural changes that began in Turkey starting 12,000 years ago, and culminating in a whole new economic regimen over 10,000 years ago, led to the meals on our tables to this very day.