Overarching period: West Asian Neolithic, 10,000 - 7,500 BP
Carbon dating: 8,400 - 8,000 years old
Barcın Höyük - 40.30° North, 29.57° East
Site location country: Turkey
mtDNA haplogroups: K, X
Y haplogroups: G2a2b
The Neolithic Period in West Asia:
The Neolithic was a significant period in technological and cultural development, primarily because many human groups switched from hunting and gathering, to farming and domesticating animals for the first time . In West Asia, a large area that includes the eastern Mediterranean, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Iran, the Neolithic period occurred 10,200 – 6,900 years ago . The beginning of this period roughly coincided with the end of the last glaciation, or Ice Age, around 11,700 years ago, and the climate of West Asia would have been generally warmer and wetter than it is today .
It was once thought that agriculture emerged suddenly, triggering such a major change in human society that it became known as the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ [4, 5]. However, it is likely that the development of farming was more gradual – Neolithic farmers were descended from the Natufian hunter-gatherers of the preceding Epipaleolithic period, who began cultivating cereals as early as 15,000 years ago [6, 7]. Agriculture also did not emerge in one single place in West Asia; instead, the domestication of different species occurred independently in various regions over hundreds of years [8, 9]. For instance, barley was domesticated at sites as widespread as Abu Hureyra, Syria; Jericho, Palestine; and Ali Kosh, Iran . Similarly, goats were domesticated independently in central Iran and eastern Turkey as early as 10,000 years ago . By the end of the Neolithic, the people of West Asia were also farming wheat, millet and spelt, and breeding dogs, sheep, pigs and cattle.
Neolithic farmers mostly lived in permanent settlements, and this period marks the emergence of mud-brick architecture. Buildings were round or rectangular, and often had two stories . Occasionally, walls and floors were decorated with white or red plaster [12, 13]. Some of these settlements were large - Çatalhöyük was inhabited by 8,000 people, and Jericho had an area of six acres, surrounded by a huge stone wall and round watchtower .
Many villages had communal buildings that would have required group labour, such as grain stores or more monumental structures which may have been ritual centres . At Hallan Çemi, an early Neolithic site in Turkey, two circular structures at least five times larger than any other building have been found. Both show little evidence of everyday life; instead, exotic materials such as copper ore and obsidian were found there [13, 16]. Similar symbolic structures, some featuring huge limestone pillars, carved reliefs of animals or collections of human skulls, have been found at Çayônu, Nevah Çori, and Gôbekli Tepe . It was common for the Neolithic people to bury their dead under the floors of their houses . In some cases, skulls were removed after death and decorated with paint, clay and shells, before being reburied elsewhere .
Culturally, the Neolithic period is generally divided into the ‘aceramic’ and ‘ceramic’ eras, with the change occurring with the introduction of pottery around 7,500 years ago [3, 14]. The microliths that characterised the previous Epipaleolithic period were no longer made in the Neolithic. Instead, stone arrowheads and mace heads were produced. These were not only used on animals, but possibly also on other humans . Trade networks expanded significantly during the Neolithic, and materials like obsidian and seashells were traded over long distances – obsidian tools sourced in Turkey have been found in Jordan and Iran, and the obsidian used at Çatalhöyük was obtained from a site 125 km away .
Many late aceramic sites were abandoned in the ceramic era, and the following centuries of the late Neolithic are marked by small, short-lived settlements with little evidence of architecture. This cultural contrast may have been caused by over-exploitation of the environment as populations increased and it became no longer sustainable to live in such large farming communities [14, 18].
The Individuals from Barcın Höyük:
Neolithic people were already living in central Anatolia, or modern-day Turkey, by around 11,000 years ago [19, 20]. By 8,600 years ago, farming communities with similar cultural practices had been established in Northwestern Anatolia and the Anatolian west coast . One site in Northwestern Anatolia was Barcın Höyük, a small village on the shores of Lake Iznik, east of the modern-day city of Bursa . Barcın Höyük was likely continuously occupied from 8,600 – 8,000 years ago . Its people relied on farming cereals and pulses, and herding cattle and sheep . Early architecture indicates the existence of rectangular, timber buildings, aligned in a row with an open space in front. Objects found at this site include spoons, fish hooks and pendants made of bone, and beads crafted from stone and shell .
Over 100 burials have been found at Barcın Höyük, over two-thirds of which are infants. Adults and children were usually buried underneath the central open space, whilst infants were interred under the walls of houses . Individuals were buried in tightly flexed positions. Two individuals from Barcın Höyük have been genetically sequenced . This was a man and a woman, dating to between 8,400 and 8,000 years ago. Interestingly, genetic analysis suggests they likely carried a copy of a haplotype conferring reduced susceptibility to type 2 diabetes .
It has long been argued that Neolithic cultural traditions, including farming, may have spread from Anatolia to Europe. Recent genetic analysis supports the theory that Anatolian farmers began migrating to Europe from around 8,400 years ago . Indeed, the woman from Barcın Höyük carried mitochondrial haplogroup X, whilst the man had mitochondrial haplogroup K. These haplogroups were also typically found in Neolithic European farmers, but not in the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that came before them. Since there is such a clear genetic distinction between Neolithic farmers and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Europe, it suggests the ancestors of these European farmers came from Anatolia.
Furthermore, the man from Barcın Höyük carried Y-Chromosome haplogroup G2a2b . This is also found in European Neolithic farmers such as Ötzi the Tyrolean Iceman, a natural mummy from central Europe, but not in any pre-Neolithic European hunter-gatherers. In fact, farmers from Northwest Anatolia, such as the individuals from Barcın Höyük, are thought to have contributed a large amount of genetic ancestry (up to 53%) to the genomes of Early Neolithic people from Hungary and Germany [25, 27, 28].
Like individuals from other Anatolian sites such as Kumtepe, the people of Barcın Höyük are genetically most similar to modern-day Sardinians – much more than to modern populations from Turkey [25, 29]. Why is this? Well, analysis of Turkish DNA suggests the occurrence of several admixture events – the Neolithic farmers of Anatolia mixed and interbred with various different populations, most likely due to their location as the connecting point of Europe and Asia. This great intermixing of populations from Europe to Asia would have altered the DNA of current Turkish people. Meanwhile, the genetic similarity between Neolithic Anatolians and modern-day Sardinians could be explained as the result of Sardinia being relatively isolated from population movement.
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