New findings about farming challenge current theory

22 March 2018

Crops are one of the bedrocks of today’s global civilisation, and the understanding of how they first spread around the world has been challenged by a University of Queensland archaeologist.

It was originally thought that farming expanded from a hilly region known as the Fertile Crescent (extending from Israel via Lebanon and Turkey to Iran), the place in which crops are found in the wild and were first grown, as a result of farmers from that region moving into new territories.

However Associate Professor Andrew Fairbairn from UQ’s School of Social Science said recent findings from the Konya Plain in Turkey’s high central plateau challenge this theory.

“Archaeological results from the excavation of Boncuklu, near Konya, show that growing wheat was initially taken up by a village of foragers as just one part of a complex way of life which included hunting animals and gathering plants for food in an environment rich in natural resources,” he said.

Stone tool making traditions and DNA show that the people who adopted crops were from central Turkey and did not migrate there from elsewhere.

“Chemical isotopes preserved in the bones of some sheep and goats, studied by colleagues in the UK, indicate that small numbers of animals were being fed in a way very close to that seen in herded sheep and goats at the nearby World Heritage site of Çatalhöyük 1000 years later.

“While crops and herd animals are present at Boncuklu, they seem not to have been intensively used and were fitted into the round of hunting and gathering activities in a rare archaeological example of low-level food production.”

Dr Fairbairn said archaeologists have previously thought that farming had to be undertaken on a large-scale or not at all; in part because it requires major changes to the way people live, tying them to one place for long periods of time.

“At Boncuklu, small-scale farming lasted for several centuries and that is new.”

Working in partnership with Professor Douglad Baird (Liverpool UK) and Dr Gökhan Mustafaoğlu (Zonguldak, Turkey), Dr Fairbairn said that dozens of Australian volunteers, including many UQ students, spent time at the site digging alongside volunteers from the UK, Turkey and several other countries, and took part in experimental archaeology to understand life at the village and present the finds to the public in a new visitor centre.

“Our success in identifying the sparse traces crop and herd animal use over 10,000 years ago has been the result of a sustained team effort applying exhaustive recording and recovery methods to a very difficult site in often harsh conditions; yet the results have been worth it,” he said.

The team also contrasted Boncuklu to the contemporary site of Pınarbaşı lying 30km to the south of Boncuklu in Karaman Province, finding that people at that site did not take up farming; maintaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

“Intriguingly, while Pınarbaşı was abandoned and its people disappeared from the archaeological record, we believe that Boncuklu’s people were the ancestors of the people of Çatalhöyük,” Professor Baird said.

“Farming at Boncuklu was a relatively minor economic activity 10,000 years ago, but its adoption had significant, positive long-term consequences for the people who committed to it,” he said.

Agricultural origins on the Anatolian plateau was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Media: Andrew Fairbairn (T) 61 7 3365 2780 (M) 0439 649 417 (E), Kristen Johnston (UQ HASS Communications) (T) 61 7 3346 1633 (M) 0439 187 349 (E)