Turkey opens a new window to the beginning of the Neolithic civilization | Culture


Aerial view of the Karahan Tepe excavations, in Sanliurfa province and within the Tek Tek Mountains National Park, east of the Harran Plain.
Aerial view of the Karahan Tepe excavations, in Sanliurfa province and within the Tek Tek Mountains National Park, east of the Harran Plain.Karahan Tepe Excavations Archive

Carved figures of humans and animals, large T-shaped obelisks, burials, domestic structures and rituals … The artifacts and settlements that, in recent years, archaeologists have uncovered in the arid lands of southeastern Turkey open a new window to the beginnings of sedentarism in Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia. In the opinion of the Turkish researchers, these findings may serve to rewrite the history of the beginnings of human civilization. Others are more cautious.

The discovery of Göbekli Tepe —dated around 9,600 BC. C. and considered “the oldest temple in the world” – and its excavation under the direction of the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt between 1994 and 2014 have been a before and after in the investigations on the first stages of the Neolithic in Turkey. Promoted as a tourist attraction by the Ministry of Culture, included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, and even the subject of a series on Netflix, Göbekli Tepe has served to promote archaeological work in the area.

The theory used by the researchers is that what until recently was considered a solitary temple in the middle of the routes of nomadic communities that lived almost 12,000 years ago – “A solitary cathedral on a hill”, in Schmidt’s words – could have been actually the nucleus of a constellation of sedentary settlements with a more specialized and stratified social structure than previously thought. In fact, excavations made since the death of the German archaeologist in 2014 have revealed the existence in Göbekli Tepe of dwellings around the religious structures, suggesting the presence of a stable settlement, a kind of village.

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The obelisks found inside Karahan Tepe represent human figures.
The obelisks found inside Karahan Tepe represent human figures.Karahan Tepe Excavation Archive / BEKİR KÖŞKER

Some 35 kilometers east of Göbekli Tepe, another hill, Karahan Tepe, has been excavated, which has also yielded important archaeological finds. The results of the carbon-14 studies, yet to be published, place this site in a period between the tenth and the ninth millennium BC, that is, at the dawn of the Neolithic (in phases A and B of the pre-ceramic Neolithic) and around the same time Göbekli Tepe was occupied.

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The Stone Hills project (Stone Hills in Turkish), for which a dozen sites have been identified around Göbekli Tepe, in the Harran plain (Sanliurfa province), and excavations have started at seven this year. “These are places dated between 9,600 and 8,200 BC. C. They are of different sizes, which suggests a hierarchy between settlements. Most are situated on hills and close enough to be seen, and in all of them we have discovered unique but similar artifacts. In other words, they were people who inhabited the same world ”, explains the head of the excavations in Karahan Tepe, the professor of archeology Necmi Karul. “Although the monumental ruins that we know of Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe are impressive, they are only part of everything there is. [por descubrir]”, He adds.

Sketch of the settlements around Göbekli Tepe.
Sketch of the settlements around Göbekli Tepe.Karahan Tepe Excavations Archive

In none of these excavations has evidence of domestication of plants or animals been found, but thousands of bones of wild animals have been found, which would prove that they were still hunter-gatherer societies. This was a time when temperatures were beginning to rise after the ice ages, leading to a greater availability of game and edible plants. “The sedentarization came from abundance and not from scarcity”, stresses Karul: “Given the new climatic conditions, they developed new hunting techniques and began to control animals that would be domesticated in the future.” This more fertile ecosystem must have brought a greater number of population to this region, opening the way to the occupation of settlements in a sedentary way. “We also believe that this prosperity was the cause of the establishment of monumental places with strongly symbolic aspects. The constructions of Karahan Tepe have been preserved in very good condition and offer samples of many phenomena: an organized life, a certain distinctive social order of large communities … Not only because of the structures, but also because of the finds of animal and human sculptures. in three dimensions, which reflects well the skills and symbolic world of the prehistoric people who lived there. Contrary to what was previously believed, the transition to a sedentary life and the social changes that it entailed were not caused by food production, but food production was a consequence of this transition ”.

Sculpture 'Person carrying a leopard', carved in limestone.  The leopard represents a living animal and the fact that it shows its teeth shows that it is trying to provoke fear.
Sculpture ‘Person carrying a leopard’, carved in limestone. The leopard represents a living animal and the fact that it shows its teeth shows that it is trying to provoke fear.Karahan Tepe Excavation Archive / BEKİR KÖŞKER

Until the end of the last century, the history of human sedentarization was written in clear stages and agriculture and, later, livestock were considered the main causes of the end of nomadism. It is what is known as the “Neolithic revolution” and that would lead to the beginnings of human civilization. However, studies published since the late 1990s, new scientific research and dating techniques, and archaeological finds in various parts of the planet have been blurring those limits for several decades.

“We have evidence that the various stages of sedentarization, agriculture, ranching and ceramic development occur in a different order in different parts of the world. In the Middle East, we have had evidence for a long time that sedentarization preceded agriculture, ”says Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, an archaeobotanist at the CSIC’s Institute of History. It also establishes a key difference between the cultivation of wild plants and their domestication, which made possible the further development of agriculture and of which the oldest evidence dates back to southern Syria, around 8,700 BC. C., a time when the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe and its area were still gatherers.

Inside Karahan Tepe, carved out of the rock, there is a figure with a human head and in front of it phallic figures.
Inside Karahan Tepe, carved out of the rock, there is a figure with a human head and in front of it phallic figures.Karahan Tepe Excavations Archive

Hence, without belittling the importance of the findings in Sanliurfa for the archeology of Turkey, I argue that, at the level of global history, they do not modify what had been discovered in other points of the Fertile Crescent, for example in Jordan or Israel. “There we have deposits of the Natufian culture [datada del 13.000 al 9.500 a.C.] in which there is evidence of sedentary settlements, long-term occupations, stone buildings destined for mortuary and symbolic areas, even with the use of lime for plastering ”, says Arranz:“ Many of the processes that we see in the Neolithic of greater social complexity they already begin to develop earlier and have their roots in the Epipaleolithic period ”.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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