Overarching period: West Asian Neolithic, 10,200 – 6,900 years old
Carbon dating: 11,100 BP - 10,600 years old
Location: Hotu Cave - 35.59° North, 53.50° East
Site location country: Iran
mtDNA haplogroups: HV2
Y haplogroups: J
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 Neolithic presence at Hotu Cave
Hotu Cave is a late Epipaleolithic/early Neolithic site in northern Iran, near to the modern-day town of Behshahr. First excavated in 1951, this site has been tentatively dated to around 11,100 – 10,600 years ago [7, 19, 20]. Located on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, this area would have been rich in marine resources. Several individuals have been recovered from Hotu Cave. One of these, a child aged 1.5-2 years old, has been genetically sequenced .
The Hotu individual derived around 66% of their ancestry from the ‘Basal Eurasians.’ The Basal Eurasians are a lineage which split off prior to the differentiation of all other European lineages, and prior to the interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans that occurred around 50,000 – 65,000 years ago . The people of Hotu Cave therefore likely had high amounts of Neanderthal ancestry.
Analysis shows that the individual from Hotu shared over 90% of their DNA with other Neolithic populations in Iran, like those at Ganj Dareh, but was genetically very different to people living in other areas of West Asia, such as in Anatolia or the southern Levant . In fact, Iranians appear to have been relatively isolated during the Neolithic period, rarely interbreeding with other Eurasian groups. The child from Hotu carried Y-chromosome haplogroup J, which has also been found in hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus, from the Palaeolithic era onwards .
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