Carved human and animal figures, large T-shaped obelisks, burials, domestic and ritual structures… The artefacts and habitats that archaeologists have unearthed in recent years in the arid lands of southeastern Turkey open up a new window on the beginnings of sedentarism in Turkey. Anatolia and upper Mesopotamia. In the opinion of Turkish researchers, these discoveries can serve to rewrite the history of the beginning of human civilization. Others are more cautious.
The discovery of Göbekli Tepe, dated to around 9600 BC. C. and considered “the oldest temple in the world” – and its excavations under the direction of the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt between 1994 and 2014 marked a before and after in research on the first stages of the Neolithic in Turkey . Promoted as a tourist attraction by the Ministry of Culture, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and even the subject of a Netflix series, Göbekli Tepe has served to promote archaeological work in the region.
The researchers’ theory is that what was until recently believed to be a solitary temple in the middle of the roads of nomadic communities who lived nearly 12,000 years ago – “A solitary cathedral on a hill”, in the words of Schmidt – might have actually been the nucleus of a constellation of sedentary settlements with a more specialized and stratified social structure than previously thought. Indeed, excavations carried out since the death of the German archaeologist in 2014 have revealed the existence in Göbekli Tepe of dwellings around religious structures, which suggests the presence of a stable habitat, a kind of villa.
About 35 kilometers east of Göbekli Tepe, another hill, Karahan Tepe, has been excavated and has also yielded important archaeological finds. The results of studies on carbon 14, not yet published, place this site in a period between the 10th and 9th millennia BC, that is to say at the dawn of the Neolithic (in phases A and B of the Preceramic Neolithic) and at the same time as Göbekli Tepe was occupied.
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The Colinas de Piedra project was also launched (Tas Tepeler in Turkish), for which a dozen sites have been identified around Göbekli Tepe in the plain of Harran (province of Sanliurfa), excavations starting at seven this year. “These are places dated between 9,600 and 8,200 BC. C. They are of different sizes, suggesting a hierarchy between establishments. Most are located on hills and close enough to be seen and in each of them we discovered unique but similar artifacts. In other words, they were people who inhabited the same world,” explains the head of the excavations at Karahan Tepe, archeology professor Necmi Karul. “Although the monumental ruins that we know of from Göbekli Tepe and Karahan Tepe are impressive, they represent only a part of all that exists [por descubrir]”, he adds.
No evidence of domestication of plants or animals has been found in any of these excavations, but thousands of bones of wild animals have been found, which would prove that these were always societies of hunters- pickers. It was a time when temperatures began to rise after the ice ages, leading to greater availability of game and food plants. “Sedentarization came from abundance and not from scarcity”, emphasizes Karul: “Given the new climatic conditions, they developed new hunting techniques and began to control animals which in the future would be domesticated” . This more fertile ecosystem must have brought more people to this area, paving the way for settlements to be settled in a sedentary manner. “We also think that this prosperity was at the origin of the establishment of monumental places with strongly symbolic aspects. The constructions of Karahan Tepe have been preserved in very good condition and offer examples of many phenomena: an organized life, a certain social order specific to large communities… Not only because of the structures, but also because of the finds of animals and human sculptures in three dimensions, which reflect well the skills and the symbolic universe of the prehistoric peoples who lived there. Contrary to what was previously believed, the transition to a sedentary life and the social changes it brought about were not caused by food production, but rather food production was a consequence of this transition.
Until the end of the last century, the history of human sedentarization was written in clear stages and agriculture and, later, animal husbandry were considered the main causes of the end of nomadism. This is called the “Neolithic Revolution” and will lead to the beginnings of human civilization. However, studies published since the late 1990s, new scientific research and dating techniques, archaeological discoveries in various parts of the planet have been blurring these boundaries for several decades.
“We have proof that the different stages of sedentarization, agriculture, animal husbandry and the development of ceramics take place in a different order in different regions of the world. In the Middle East, there has long been proof that sedentarization preceded agriculture,” explains Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, an archaeobotanist at CSIC’s Institute of History. He also establishes an essential difference between the cultivation of wild plants and their domestication, which made possible the further development of agriculture and whose first evidence dates back to southern Syria, around 8700 BC, a time when the inhabitants of Göbekli Tepe and its region were still foragers .
Thus, without diminishing the importance of the Sanliurfa finds for the archeology of Turkey, he maintains that at the level of global history, they do not modify what had been discovered in other parts 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 intended for mortuary and symbolic areas, even with the use of lime to render,” says Arranz: “Many of the processes that we see in the Neolithic of greater complexity, they already begin to develop earlier and have their roots in the Epipalaeolithic period”.