The long road between our last common ancestor with apes and modern humans is a fascinating area of archaeological research. Many different species of ancient people have been found from the last seven million years, including both our ancestors as well as some more distant cousins. I hope that you enjoyed the short (ish) summary of our evolution. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and please come back and listen to the episode next week on the earliest archaeology of the ancient Near East.
If you would like to know more about the study of human evolution, or would like to see reconstructions of what our ancient family members may have looked like, there are some excellent resources available. Reconstructions and summaries of ancient people species by the Smithsonian Institution can be found on their Human Origins research page here. This page also has lovely examples of the Oldowan and Acheulean tools described in the episode.
If you would like to read more on human evolution – and what it is like to study – then I can recommend a couple of enjoyable books as well:
Lee Berger and John Hawks. 2017. Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed our Human Story.
Mark Maslin. 2017. The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made us so Smart.
Berger, L. and Hawks, J. 2017. Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed our Human Story. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
Bramble, D.M. and Lieberman, D.E. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432: 345-352.
Clarke, R.J. 2012. A Homo habilis maxilla and other newly discovered hominid fossils from Olduvai Gorge,Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution 63: 418-428.
Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T.R., Semaw,S. and Rogers,M.J. 2005. Cutmarked bones from Pliocene archaeological sites at Gona, Afar, Ethiopia: implications for the function of the world’s oldest stone tools. Journal of Human Evolution 48: 109-121.
Haeusler, M. and McHenry, H.M. 2004. Body proportions of Homo habilis reviewed. Journal of Human Evolution 46: 433-465.
Haile-Selassie, Y., Saylor, B.Z., Deino, A., Alene, M. and Latimer, B.M. 2010. New hominid fossils from Woranso-Mille (Central Afar, Ethiopia) and taxonomy of early Australopithecus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 141: 406-417.
Herries, A.L., Martin, J.M., Leece, A.B., Adams, J.W., Boschian, G., Johannes-Boyau, R., Edwards, T.R., Mallett, T., Massey, J., Murszewski, A., Neubauer, S., Pickering, R., Strait, D.S., Armstrong, B.J., Baker, S., Caruana, M.V., Denham, T., Hellstrom, J., Moggi-Cecchi, J., Mokobane, S., Penzo-Kajewski, P., Rovinsky, D.S., Schwarts, G.T., Stammers, R.C., Wilson, C., Woodhead, J. and Menter, C. 2020. Contemporaneity of Australopithecus, Paranthropus, and early Homo erectus in South Africa. Science 368(47): 1-19.
Hetherington, R. 2012. Living in a Dangerous Climate: Climate Change and Human Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hlubik, S., Berna, F., Feibel, C., Braun, D. and Harris, J.W.K. 2017. Researching the nature of fire at 1.5 Mya on the site of FxJj20 AB, Koobi For a, Kenya using high-resolution spatial analysis and FTIR spectrometry. Current Anthropology 58(Supplement 16): S243-S257.
Hublin, J.-J., Ben-Ncer, A., Bailey, S.E., Freidline, S.E., Neubauer,S., Skinner, M.M., Bergmann, I., Le Cabec, A., Benazzi,S., Harvati, K. and Gunz, P. 2017. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Moroccoand the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens. Nature 546: 289-292.
Lovejoy, C.O., Suwa, G., Simpson, S.W., Matternes, J.H. and White, T.D. 2009. The great diides: Ardipithecus ramidus reveals the postcrania of our last common ancestors with African apes. Science 326: 100-106.
Maslin, M. 2017. The Cradle of Humanity: How the Changing Landscape of Africa Made us so Smart. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Profico,A., Di Vincenzo,F., Gagliardi, L., Piperno, M. and Manzi, G. 2016. Filling the gap. Human cranial remains from GomboreII (Melka Kunture, Ethiopia; ca. 850ka) and the origin of Homo heidelbergensis. Journal of Anthropological Sciences 94: 1-24.
Reno, P.L., Meindl, R.S., McCollum, M.A. and Lovejoy, C.O. 2003. Sexual dimorphism in Australopithecus afarensis was similar to that of modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(16): 9404-9409.
Rightmire, C.P. 2013. Homo erectus and Middle Pleistocene hominins: brain size, skull forms and species recognition. Journal of Human Evolution 65(3): 223-252.
Simpson, S.W., Quade, J., Levin, N.E., Butler, R., Dupont-Nivet, G., Everett, M. and Semaw, S. 2008. A female Homo erectus pelvis from Gona, Ethipoia. Science 322: 1089-1092.
Stout, D. Semaw, S., Rogers, M.J. and Cauche, D. 2010. Technological variation in the earliest Oldowan from Gona Afar, Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution 58: 474-491.
Henke, W. and Tattersall, I. 2013 Handbook of Paleoanthropology Volume 3: Phylogeny of Hominines. London: Springer.
Thoth, N. and Schick, K.2018. An overview of the cognitive implications of the Oldowan Industrial Complex. Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 53(1): 3-39.
Thoth, N. and Schick, K. 2009. The Oldowan: the tool making of early hominins and chimpanzees compared. Annual Review of Anthropology 38: 289-305.
Ward, C.V. 2002. Interpreting the posture and locomotion of Australopithecus afarensis: where do we stand? Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 45: 185-215.
Ward, C.V., Plavcan, J.M. and Manthi, F.K. 2010. Anterior dental evolution in the Australopithecus anamensis-afarensis lineage. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 365: 3333-3344.
White, T.D., Asfaw, B., Beyene, Y., Haile-Selassie, Y., Lovejoy, C.O., Suwa, G. and WoldeGabriel, G. 2009. Ardipithecus ramidus and the paleobiology of early hominids. Science 326: 64-86.
After the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B in the Levant, Mesopotamia and Anatolia, we can see many changes to daily life happening across these regions. Pottery becomes a part of everyday life in villages across these regions of the Near East, although when it appears and when it becomes commonplace is not necessarily the same everywhere. The structure of life seems to continue a pattern first begin in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, with the organisation of everyday life and its activities moving from the level of the entire village to the level of the family, or the extended family. We also see signs of the spread of the idea of private property, and the measures taken to mark and protect this property. While these things were common across many regions of the Near East, though, each region – and even in some cases each valley or group of valleys – developed a more independent and distinctive local culture.
The island of Cyprus has this very much in common with these mainland regions of the Near East. Just like we saw more local variation and the development of local cultural traditions on the mainland after 7000 cal BCE, Cyprus also develops its own local post-Pre-Pottery Neolithic culture- the Khirokitia culture (circal 7000 to 5200 cal BCE).
The Khirokitia culture has been known for nearly 100 years, since the first excvations at the site of Khirokitia in the 1930s. In these early days it was thought to be the oldest human habitation on the island of Cyprus. We now know that this happened several thousand years earlier, from at least as early as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A. But, these earlier sites were unknown until the 1980s and for several decades in between the Khirokitia culture was thought to be the first permanent human settlement on Cyprus.
Once earlier sites were discovered, for another few decades there were so few pre-7000 cal BCE sites known that some argued that the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B occupation of Cyprus had been ultimately unsuccessful, and that people disappeared from the island until it was re-occupied by colonists from the mainland with the Khirokitia culture. With time, though, we found more sites, which provided radiocarbon dates, and which showed that people were living on Cyprus all the way through from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A until the beginning of the Khirokitia culture (and beyond). So this theory has also fallen away and we now see the Khirokitia culture as a continuation of a long tradition of local Neolithic societies on Cyprus.
Now, the big question has been whether or not the Khirokitia culture existed in a vacuum. Or, rather, how much interaction people on Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture had with people living in Pottery Neolithic/Ceramic Neolithic/Late Neolithic villages on the mainland. This is because there are a couple of things about the Khirokitia culture which make it different from the cultures that we have seen at this time on the mainland. For a start, people in the Khirokitia culture built rounded houses rather than the rectangular ones that were built by nearly everyone on the mainland at this time. They also had some differences in the way that they made their stone tools. For example, the fashion for pressure flaking that we have seen across Anatolia, the Levant and Mesopotamia never really seems to have come into fashion on Cyprus.
The big difference, though, is the pottery. Pottery appears and then becomes a part of daily life at different times across the mainland of the Near East. On Cyprus though, it appears a bit late. Or rather, it appears REALLY late, since it doesn’t really turn up in villages (apart from the rare experimental piece) until after the end of the Khirokitia culture (or, after about 5000 cal BCE). Instead of pottery, people living on Khirokitia Cyprus made carved stone bowls. These existed on Cyprus during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, as well as on the mainland. The stone bowls made on Cyprus before 7000 cal BCE, however, tended to be made of softer stone (like limestone). During the Khirokitia culture, this changed to a fashion for much harder igneous stone, usually of a grey-green colour. These also seem to have become more elaborately decorated, with designs carved in relief to the outsides of bowls. This stone was also used to carve figurines. Like on the mainland these were mostly figurines of humans. Unlike on the mainland these figurines are much more pared-back and even abstract depictions of people, and usually lacking in the details of anatomy which would tell us if the figurines were supposed to be male or female (unlike the figurines commonly seen across the mainland). Stone was also carved into elaborate designs on pebbles, which seem to have been associated with specific people and which have been argued to have acted as sealing stamps,much like what we have also seen from this time in the northern Levant and northern Mesopotamia.
So while carved stone was able to perform just about all of the functions that we see pottery being used for on the mainland, the Khirokitia culture still forms avery long additional time that Cyprus spent without this new pottery technology. The people of Khirokitia Cyprus spent an extra 1500 to 2000 years still living a Pre-Pottery Neolithic lifestyle after the mainland has changed to the Pottery Neolithic. This long delay in the spread of pottery, along with a reduction in the amount of obsidian being imported into Cyprus after 7000 cal BCE, has led to the argument that Cyprus became isolated after the ‘collapse’ of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B interactions sphere.
Unlike with the two previous theories about the Khirokitia culture – that it was the first occupation of Cyprus and that it was a re-occupation after previous villages died out – the question of the isolation of Cyprus can’t be easily solved by finding more sites and getting more radiocarbon dates.
Happily, this is because the question of the isolation of Khirokitia can be solved already, just by looking at the evidence that we already have.
The evidence which is used to suggest that Khirokitia Cyprus was isolated from mainland societies of the Near East is that (a) they retained burial patterns – with single burials under floors and head shaping – from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; (b) they had round houses, which went out of fashion on the mainland during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic; (c) there is a drop in the amount of obsidian imported into Cyprus; and (d) they did not incroporate pottery into daily life until after the end of the Khirokitia culture.
Arguing about how much contact Cyprus had with the mainland after 7000 cal BCE using obsidian is a ticky subject. Cyprus did not get as much imported obsidian after about 7000 cal BCE, but then again many of the regions of the mainland that we have talked about – like the Levant and Mesopotamia – also saw a drop in the levels of imported obsidian at this same time. The obsidian that is coming into Cyprus during the Khirokitia culture is also coming from the Cappadocia region of what is now Turkey, which is the same source of obsidian that we see for Ceramic Neolithic cultures in the Levant as well as in some parts of northern Mesopotamia. So we can’t really use the levels of imported obsidian to argue about how much contact Cyprus may have had with the mainland during the time of the Khirokitia culture, since it gets the same decrease in how much obsidian is being traded around, and is getting obsidian from the same sources as its nearest neighbours on the mainland.
If we ignore obsidian, then we are left with the burial practices, the architecture and the absence of pottery. The current counter-argument to this view of isolation uses these same pieces of evidence to argue that Cyprus wasn’t isolated – it was just independent, and had been independent since the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. This view sees Cyprus as a land where the traditions of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A – including round communal buildings and houses and greater levels of use of wild plants and animals – continued to be kept throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic instead of being fashionable only in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and then disappearing over the course of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B like we see on the mainland. Remember, round buildings were common on the mainland in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A but then went out of fashion. On Cyprus, they kept this – and probably other older traditions alive. The burial traditions are also a sign of this independence of Cyprus, with people maintaining their traditions of burial regardless of what was currently fashionable over on the mainland.
So, if Cyprus has been doing its own independent thing throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, then it should be no real surprise that they decided to continue to do their own thing during the time of the Khirokitia culture, and just were not interested in adopting pottery technology the way that people did on the mainland. If we look at the adoption of pottery into daily life as something that people may have chosen to do or not to do, then the absence of pottery on Khirokitia Cyprus becomes another in a series of choices about daily life and society that the people of Cyprus made over the course of several thousand years of human settlement which were different from the choices that people made on the mainland. So Cyprus almost certainly was not completely isolated from the mainland (after all, they were still getting imported obsidian). Instead, the people of the Khirokitia culture chose what they imported over from their neighbours on the mainland. Obsidian, yes. Pottery, not quite yet.
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We have looked thus far at the transition to the Pottery Neolithic over the seven millennium BCE in Anatolia and the Levant. This time I wanted to look at the third major central area of the Near East – Mesopotamia, or the land between the rivers. Mesopotamia is a big region, and includes not only the land directly in between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers but also areas to the north as far as the foothills of the Taurus and Zagros mountains, and lands to the south into the Syrian desert. This big area generally gets divided into northern (or upper) Mesopotamia and southern (or lower) Mesopotamia, although a central region between these can sometimes be divided out depending on what time periods or cultures we are looking at.
Seventh millennium BCE Mesopotamia, which here is called the Late Neolithic, is home to multiple archaeological cultures. The Late Neolithic archaeological cultures and developments from later in the sixth millennium BCE have traditionally gotten more attention from archaeologists, so the names of cultures that form here in Mesopotamia during the seventh millennium have mostly been given in reference to these later developments. Thus, in the western parts of northern Mesopotamia in what is now Syria, we have first the Initial Pottery Neolithic and Early Pottery Neolithic, which turns into the Pre-Proto-Halaf and then Proto-Halaf (or Pre-Halaf). This is named for the later Halaf culture which turns up here after the end of the seventh millennium. We have a similar pattern of names for the more eastern and southern parts of northern Mesopotamia (and central Mesopotamia), with the cultures here being the Pre-Proto-Hassuna, Proto-Hassuna and (at the very end of the seventh millennium) the Hassuna culture. These names also come from a focus in the Hassuna culture as it develops after the end of the seventh millennium.
In southern Mesopotamia, we don’t have a very clear idea of what sort of archaeological societies we have during most of the seventh millennium, so we don’t have specific names for cultures of this region until the last century or two of the seventh millennium when we see the emergence of the Samarra culture.
So by the last couple of centuries of the seventh millennium BCE in Mesopotamia we have three main cultures that we think were around – the Proto-Halaf, the Proto-Hassuna (or in some areas the Archaic Hassuna) and the Samarra. But these were not groups with fixed boundaries between them, such as where villages in one valley have completely Proto-Halaf style houses, pottery, stone tools, and other artefacts, and villages in the next valley over have all Proto-Hassuna style things. Instead, what we have is a big fuzzy mix across Mesopotamia, with groups and styles blending together and gradually changing across different parts of Mesopotamia. So we see sites more to the western part of northern Mesopotamia mostly having Proto-Halaf style pottery with some Hassuna or Samarra items, then villages in the eastern parts of northern Mesopotamia having mostly Proto-Hassuna style pottery with some Proto-Halaf and Samarra mixed in, and then villages in southern Mesopotamia having mostly Samarra style pottery with some Proto-Hassuna or Proto-Halaf styles mixed in.
The earliest pottery that we get in Mesopotamia doesn’t necessarily show these sorts of divisions between different parts of the region. Mostly, early pottery in Mesopotamia is mineral tempered and comes in a fairly basic set of shapes. This changes pretty quickly though to either mostly plant tempered pottery or a combination of plant and/or mineral tempered pottery. The shapes that are more common between different parts of Mesopotamia also develop after this earliest stage of pottery, with bowls and jars from the Proto-Halaf areas of northern Mesopotamia having different shapes and different types of decoration (open bowls, jars with necks and incised decoration) from the Proto-Hassuna parts of northern and central Mesopotamia (jars with little to no neck, carinated bowls and decoration pieces stuck onto the outside of vessels).
Of course, these are the ‘classic’ or stereotypical shapes for each of these cultures, and there is in reality a lot of overlap in shapes and styles within individual villages, especially those in the middle area of northern Mesopotamia where the boundaries of Proto-Halaf and Proto-Hassuna blur. This is also the case with the “husking tray”, which is considered to be a characteristic item of Hassuna pottery, but which is found also during the seventh millennium Proto-Hassuna and is also found occasionally all over northern Mesopotamia – including in the Pre-Halaf western parts. These trays were first thought to have been used to remove the husks (tough outer coatings) of cereal grains. We now know that they absolutely were not used for this, but the name has stuck. Some recent experiments actually make a good argument for these as tins for baking bread – with the ridges on the bottom of the trays helping the bread to bake evenly and not stick to the bottom.
Pottery was, of course, not the only sort of container that was available in the seventh millennium. Plaster vessels, known as white ware, were around in the Near East since the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (9500-8500 cal BCE), although these had gone mostly out of fashion in Mesopotamia during the later part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. During the Late Neolithic though, starting from about 6900 cal BCE these start to come back into fashion. In the eastern Proto-Hassuna part of northern and central Mesopotamia these white ware vessels are fashionable again for only a few hundred years, loosing their appeal when pottery became common across sites. In the western Proto-Halaf part of northern Mesopotamia though, they stay fashionable for much longer, including after pottery becomes commonplace, only becoming less fashionable towards the very end of the seventh millennium, but still turning up on sites for another five hundred years of so after that.
Apart from the appearance and spread of pottery across Mesopotamia, in some ways life remained exactly the same as during the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic, and in other ways there were major changes to societies. The villages where people lived, and the houses in these villages, show very little change between the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic and over the seventh millennium. People live mostly in small villages made up of rectangular houses grouped together, with the houses mostly divided into multiple internal rooms.
One thing which was around before the seventh millennium in the Near East but which is seen a bit more commonly during the seventh millennium is a practice called skull shaping. This – as the name suggests – is the practice of winding a cord or other object around the head of a baby so that the bones will grow into an elongated rather than a round shape. This doesn’t hurt the baby, as it does not affect the brain. But we don’t exactly know why people chose to do this, as shaped skulls don’t seem to relate to a certain social role in society (such as shamans), or relate to a particular gender or kinship group. It seems to just have been an occasional practice, like a fashion or a certain aesthetic taste in appearance.
One thing which does change during the seventh millennium is the use of seals and stamps in at least the Proto-Halaf part of northern Mesopotamia. Seals were the wet clay or putty that could be used to cover a jar or seal a basket. This sealing clay would then be stamped with a carved stamp of ceramic, stone, bone, or another material. Once a container had been sealed and stamped, it would then be impossible to open it without breaking the seal. If this seal was broken, you would need to re-seal the jar or basket with a fresh layer of wet clay or putty and stamp it again with an identical stamp. Otherwise, it would be obvious that the container had been tampered with. This is a system which we will see much more of through time in the Near East, as a way of protecting private property as well as an administrative system for storage, control of resources and trade. It is here in the seventh millennium BCE that it seems to begin, suggesting that it is here in the seventh millennium that people started to have the idea of property belonging to a single family or a single person rather than to the village or social group as a whole, and they wanted to protect this property and make sure that none of their neighbours helped themselves to it when no one was looking.
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Nieuwenhuyse, O. 2013a. The social uses of decorated ceramics in Late Neolithic Upper Mesopitamia. In O. Nieuwenhuyse, R. Bernbeck, P.M.M.G. Akkermans and J. Rogasch (eds.), Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia. Turnhout: Brepols: 135-145.
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Anatolia, or rather the bulge of Asia Minor, is the westernmost part of the Near East. If we move south of Asia Minor we get the Levant, which is the region of the Near East along the Mediterranean coast.
At the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), around 7000 cal BCE, the Levant sees two different patterns of life, one in the northern part of the Levant and another in the southern Levant. In the northern Levant, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B ends at about 7000 cal BCE with the transition to the early Pottery Neolithic (also called the Late Neolithic). As with Anatolia, the change from the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic to the Pottery Neolithic was not dramatic, with the adoption of pottery being the most significant single change to societies.
Some changes, of course, did take place even if they were more gradual than dramatic. People mostly lived in small farming villages of one or two hectares. This was not very different to life in the PPNB except that the large villages or ‘megasites’ from this earlier period were either abandoned or shrank down to the size of the other small villages. Community life also shrank, contracting down more to the scale of the single family or the extended family rather than the level of the entire village. As with Anatolia we have evidence of this from the way that houses in villages were arranged. Instead of large neighbourhoods or whole villages grouped together, farming villages of the Pottery Neolithic were made of one or more clusters of a few groups of houses arranged together around a communal space. These houses could be made of one large room, or have smaller internal rooms. Over time, the houses themselves got a little bit bigger and had more internal rooms – such as bedrooms or (more commonly) storage rooms. The large communal buildings and communal granaries that we saw in the PPNA and PPNB have now changed, with storage mostly seeming to take place in the home or within the extended family neighbourhood.
Pottery also became common across these farming villages. As with this period in Anatolia, pottery in the northern Levant was initially a bit less common and then became more common later on. Unlike with Anatolia (where this change took about 500 years) pottery became a common part of everyday life more rapidly, within one or two hundred years of the beginning of the Pottery Neolithic. The earliest pottery had a lot of variation from one site to the next, and was often pale in colour. What this pottery is called also varies from one valley or one site to the next, but in general it came in simple shapes, was light in colour (although not always) and was mostly mineral tempered. Another type of early Pottery that we see in the northern Levant is called Dark Faced Burnished Ware, which is dark in colour and had a polished (or burnished) surface. Apart from being burnished, these pots were decorated in several ways – including adding bands of clay to the outer surfaces, cutting little lines into the surface of the pots or wrapping them in textiles to leave impressions in the clay before firing. Over time- mostly by about 6600 cal BCE – this darker burnished becomes the more popular type of pottery, especially for the fancier (or fineware) pottery, although some lighter coloured or coarser pottery remained. How much Dark Faced Burnished Ware came to replace other types of pottery varies across the northern Levant. In the northern parts of the northern Levant it seems to go mostly out of fashion, being almost completely replaced by a pale coloured coarser pottery called ‘Pinkish Gritty Ware’ by the end of this period around 6000 cal BCE. In the more southern parts of the northern Levant though, Dark Faced Burnished Ware and coarser wares continued to be present in mostly equal proportions all the way though to 6000 cal BCE.
There were also changes to the way that stone tools were made, although these also were not dramatic. Older techniques of making chipped stone tools – like naviform blades and cores – were still used, with the added use of new techniques such as pressure flaking.
In the southern Levant, the change from the PPNB to the Pottery Neolithic is both slower and more dramatic. It is dramatic in the sense that the changes which we see in the few hundred years after 7000 cal BCE were not part of the early Pottery Neolithic but were instead part of another stage of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic called the PPNC. This period sees a lot of changes which are very similar to what we see in other parts of the Near East, but at the same time are different and happening in the absence of the adoption of new techniques and materials like pottery.
The most noticeable thing that happens in the southern Levant during the PPNC is that the megasites either were abandoned or shrank down to the size of a small village (just like in the northern Levant) and houses were also often grouped together, sometimes around a courtyard shared by a few different families or one big extended family. Houses continued to be rectangular, and were often made up of just one room although some also have internal rooms.
There is also less obsidian coming into the southern Levant from Anatolia. What obsidian is travelling south is also no longer coming from the very east of Anatolia (almost the southern Caucasus) but is now coming from farther west in Capadoccia. Other things that were moving around the southern Levant in the PPNB though – like shell jewellery and beads – are still moving between sites across the southern Levant.
Old methods of making chipped stone tools also did not completely die away, but there was a lot more use of newer fashions and techniques such as the use of pressure flaking and more use of flakes in making tools. This continued not only throughout the PPNC but also the later Pottery Neolithic, with more use of pressure flaking and also more use of flakes and tools made from flakes. Other types of worked stone also continue on from the PPNB, such as carved stone bowls, which were often decorated or painted. There are also gradual changes in the way that people buried their dead. Cremation burials start to appear in the southern Levant in the PPNC, and burials of all kinds become a lot more rare. Over the course of the PPNC people seem to change where they buried their relatives. Instead of under the house floor or in a nearby part of the village, people seem to have moved to burying their dead in other places – ones that were presumably outside of the village and which we have not been able to find.
After a few hundred years people living in these small farming villages start to make and use pottery, and we move into the early Pottery Neolithic, which in most of the southern Levant is called the Yarmukian culture. There is a lot of variation in the Yarmukian culture, in both the styles of the pottery associated with it as well as in the way that people built their houses and organised their villages. Some people continued to build rectangular houses like the ones that we saw in the PPNC. Other people built rectangular houses but made one side rounded. Others built houses in an oval shape or even completely round. Some villages had houses all of one of these shapes, and some villages could also have several or even all of these shapes being used together at the same time. These houses sometimes were set apart, and sometimes had private walled courtyards set off to one side. In many villages several of these houses would be clustered together around a communal courtyard, providing them with more privacy and their own space for outside activities. Yarmukian pottery was most popularly red or reddish, and could have any of a large variety of decorations including burnishing, painting, coloured slips or carved decorations to the outside (such as honeycomb or herringbone patterns) or a combination or decoration styles.
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Now that we have finished off the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, we can start to look at how the different regions of the Near East changed afterwards during the Pottery or Ceramic Neolithic. Today we can have a look at central and western Anatolia (mostly modern-day Turkey).
Contrary to the idea of a ‘Pre-Pottery Neolithic Collapse’, Anatolia expands at the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Farming villages turn up all over central and eastern Anatolia at the beginning of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, but they seem to stop at central Anatolia. This spread of farming villages pauses here in the highlands of central Anatolia for over a thousand years, and only starts to move westwards towards the Aegean (and, eventually, into and across Europe) after about 7000 cal BCE.
This wasn’t the post-PPN expansion either. One of the best known sites for the late Pre-Pottery Neolithic and Ceramic Neolithic in central Anatolia is Çatalhöyük (höyük essentially means ‘tell’). While a lot of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic ‘megasites’ either significantly contracted in size or were abandoned in other parts of the Near East, here in central Anatolia Çatalhöyük does the opposite. Over the course of the Early Ceramic Neolithic (about 7000 to 6500 cal BCE) Çatalhöyük grows, getting up to about 13 hectares in size. This growth seems to have come from swallowing up the other villages in it’s part of the Konya plain, as despite a lot of looking we don’t have evidence for other Early Ceramic Neolithic villages nearby.
The people at Çatalhöyük lived in what was called a clustered neighbourhood village, which is something that we see in central Anatolia during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic as well as throughout the Early Ceramic Neolithic (and beyond at some sites). This was community living at the level of the neighbourhood, with streets winding through the villages in between neighbourhood blocks of houses, but with no streets in between the houses of a neighbourhood. Instead, the houses were built directly next to one another with no space in between. The houses did not even have doors – at least not at ground level. Instead, all of the clustered-together houses had flat, open roofs. So if you wanted to get into your house from the street, you would need to climb up a ladder and walk across the rooftops of several of your neighbours to get to your own. These roofs also served as open communal spaces for activities, and visiting with neighbours.
Inside the houses, the walls would have been carefully plastered in fine loamy mud, as well as the floors. In some parts of the walls people might have used stamps to make decorative mouldings in geometric shapes. Or they might have painted the walls with colourful geometric patterns. These are not limited to Çatalhöyük either, but are found at houses in other sites across central Anatolia during the Early Ceramic Neolithic. Thus, life has continued here in Anatolia pretty much as it was in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, except now with communities using a bit of pottery.
It isn’t really until the Late Ceramic Neolithic (about 6500-6000 cal BCE) that we really start to see changes to societies. We get some changes in which colours or shapes of pottery were fashionable, and it also changes from being pretty rare to a lot more common. The villages themselves also change. Some keep the clustered neighbourhoods of earlier centuries, but many others changes to a more open layout of houses grouped together around courtyards or streets, each with their own front door. The painting and decoration inside the houses also gets more intricate, with geometric shapes joined by depictions of animals and even intricate hunting scenes. Sone tool production also changes, with more use of pressure-flaking of flakes and blades from ‘bullet’ shaped cores.
In western Anatolia, the first Neolithic villages come from the Ceramic Neolithic (that is, after 7000 cal BCE). Pottery is also either not very common (like at Çatalhöyük) or really rare here until about 6500 cal BCE. After 6500 cal BCE though, it becomes common everywhere. There is some evidence here to suggest that this change might be due to pottery starting to be used more in everyday cooking, making it a more common part of household goods. Some parts of western Anatolia (to the north) also share the use of pressure-flaking and bullet cores in the way that stone tools were made. Other parts of western Anatolia, though (the south) had less interest in this style. In both areas, the way that stone tools were made formed its own local tradition, rather than being a twin or a descendant of the way that tools were made in central Anatolia.
Households in western Anatolia also seem to share some patterns with those of central Anatolia after about 6500 cal BCE. This isn’t necessarily in how the houses were built, as that varies with a range of house-building methods including mudbrick, earthen/mud slabs and wattle-and daub (wooden posts with a woven wooden frame covered in mud plaster). What is common is the less tightly packed layout of houses, mostly opening out onto streets with spaces between the houses rather than all tightly packed together like central Anatolia before 6500 cal BCE. While we see a lot of regional and even individual variation in the way that people arranged their houses in western Anatolia, both of here and central Anatolia seem to share a greater focus of interest on the role of the household (rather than the neighbourhood or the whole village) in daily life and decision-making.
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The Pre-Pottery Neolithic B was a time of great interaction and innovation across the ancient Near East. This period began with hunter-gatherers living in villages for some or all of the year in many parts of the Near East, but still reliant on collecting their food around the landscape. By the time this period ends, some 1500 years have passed and we have settled farming villages across the Near East with a wide range of domesticated plants and animals, as well as sophisticated techniques for both freshwater and ocean fishing.
People still lived in villages, although some of these had grown into massive megasites full of densely packed clusters of internally complex, sometimes multi-story houses. The farming and the fishing continue after the end of the PPNB, from about 7000 cal BCE. In terms of what else continues though, it very much depends on where in the Near East you look, because after this point we stop seeing common patterns and developments between the different regions of the Near East. This integrated ‘PPNB world system’, whether it was ever one single system or an overlapping series of different groups, breaks apart after the end of the PPNB. Raw materials and jewellery stops travelling all over the Near East over long distances. The megasites disappear – although everyone in small villages still lives in small villages – and in some areas sites are abandoned and others are founded in new locations.
In some parts of the Near East, such as northern Mesopotamia, pottery comes into common use for the first time. In other parts of the Near East, such as the southern Levant, pottery has not yet come into fashion – although it has been turning up very occasionally for a few hundred years already. Perhaps there was no real need for it just yet. Perhaps this was just a preference, and pottery had yet to come into fashion. Or, perhaps pottery technology had not yet improved enough to make it a useful thing to invest your time into making.
One thing which also starts to change – although not at the same rate or in the same way in all regions – is the way that stone tools were made. In some areas, such as the southern Levant, naviform blade technology goes out of fashion. The new fashion is for unidirectional flake and blade technology, and a lot more use of flakes. People also took up a fashion for pressure-flaking – using the careful application of slow pressure to surfaces to ping off tiny slivers of stone. This meant that tools could not only be re-sharpened, but could also be given a serrated edge for extra cutting power.
Pressure flaking was already around a little bit in northern Mesopotamia during the PPNB. After about 7000 cal BCE, though, it does become a bit more common, but doesn’t lead to a major turnover of stone tool technology like we see in the southern Levant. At least, not yet…
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Now that we have had a look at the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in most of the Near East, we can have a look at the arrival of people on Cyprus and what we know about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic societies there.
The earliest evidence that we currently have of people on Cyprus comes from the site of Akrotiri, from as early as 10,500 cal BCE. Cyprus never had a lot of the plants and animals that we associate with the Late Epipalaeolithic and Pre-Pottery Neolithic Near East. For example, Cyprus never had native versions of the plants and animals that we domesticated in the Near East during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. However, at Akrotiri we do find evidence that the people who either visited the island, or moved there, brought over some of their favourite hunting animals from the mainland Near East.
At Akrotiri, in some of the last levels of its occupation, we find the bones of wild boar. Like I said, these were not animals that were native to Cyprus, so the only reasonable explanation is that they were imported to the island by people, probably from the coastal parts of the Levant or southern Turkey.
After Akrotiri, we don’t have any evidence of people on Cyprus for a few hundred years. This might be simply that we have not yet found the sites, or it might be that people stopped coming to Cyprus for a few centuries. When we start to find evidence of people on Cyprus again it is in the PPNA, what is called on Cyprus the Cypro-PPNA.
It is only in the last ten years or so that we have worked out that there was a specific PPNA phase of settlement on Cyprus, and that this took place only slightly later than the PPNA in the rest of the Near East. There are a lot of things in common between the PPNA of the mainland Near East and the Cypro-PPNA.
We find round or oval houses, built with the same variety of materials and building techniques that we find on the mainland. We have public buildings in settlements just like we do on the mainland, and the chipped stone tools are also made in pretty much the same way as those of the Levantine part of the mainland. We have stone bowls, stone beads and shell jewellery, just like we find in the mainland although here these are made of local shells and stone. We do have imported stone though, in the form of obsidian from central Anatolia. We also have imported plants and animals. At PPNA sites on Cyprus we find the remains of wild boar (either those that were imported in the Late Epipalaeolithic and still living on the island, or animals that were freshly imported in the PPNA) as well as the remains of domestic dogs and small wild cats. We also find mice, who seem to have tagged along with people travelling from the mainland Near East and introduced themselves into the PPNA settlements on Cyprus. This might be because people also imported wild plants, like barley and wheat, and encouraged them to grow around the PPNA settlements on Cyprus so that they could be harvested, just like they were on the mainland.
Through time, the mainland Near East moved from the PPNA to the PPNB, with more complex houses and public buildings and increased trade in goods like obsidian. In Cyprus, we see this change as well at about the same time, moving from the Cypro-PPNA to the Cypro-PPNB, where we also get more complex architecture and more imported obsidian. We also see imports of more exotic materials, like beads made of carnelian. The PPNB in the mainland was also the time of the domestication of plants and animals, and on Cyprus we see this as well. From early on in the PPNB we see the importation of sheep, goats, cattle, and – a bit later – domestic pigs. We also see the importation of wild deer, which were let loose on Cyprus to be hunted and never show any signs of people trying to domesticate them. We seem domesticated grains, both barley and wheat as well as other plants, with different species of these turning up over time on Cyprus. This suggests that people were travelling back and for fairly regularly, as they were importing obsidian and occasionally carnelian, as well as animals and new varieties of domesticated grains from the mainland.
What is so interesting about Cyprus is not that it is so very similar to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the rest of the Near East. That is interesting, as the common traditions and material goods between this island and the mainland, and the fact that they change at similar times in both places, suggests that there were well established sea travel practices in communities along the coasts of both the mainland and Cyprus. What is particularly interesting for how we think of the Neolithic, and how much people controlled their environment during the Neolithic, is the movement of wild plants and animals, and domestic plants and animals, onto Cyprus from even the very early part of people living there. We don’t tend to think of Epipalaeolithic people as actively managing the animals that they hunted. But, moving a population of wild boar across the Mediterranean to stock Cyprus as a game park is exactly that – game management. We see this in the PPNA, and also with plants. We see sheep and goats appearing on Cyprus right at the beginning of when we think of them as starting to be domesticated, which suggests that people may have had more control over these animals (and possibly had control for longer) than we generally give them credit for.
The most important thing about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of Cyprus, then, is that it reminds us not to under-estimate the capabilities of early Neolithic communities in the Near East. People may have mostly lived in simple villages, but we should not make the mistake of thinking about these people as simple.
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The Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Near East is known for a lot of changes to daily life compared with the earlier Epipalaeolithic. We have already looked at some of these major changes to the way that people lived, with the change from gathering to growing your own food, and settling down to live in villages with a community social life.
However, these were not the only changes that came about in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. There were also a lot of less well-known changes and improvements to technology and society, and the way that communities interacted and shared information and goods between themselves. Some of these are improvements to technologies and networks that existed in the Epipalaeolithic, and some seem to be new things that came about here in the PPN.
Stone tools were not new in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, we have already seen them for millions of years. As with most other periods though, the PPN saw changes in the way that stone tools were made. Starting in the PPNA, and becoming widespread all over the Near East in the PPNB, we see technique for making stone tools with blades made using what is called a naviform (‘boat-shaped’) core. This method allowed people to get a lot of nice and fairly standard sized blades off of a single core without having to stop and re-shape the core in between blades. It proved to be a popular technique, spreading across the Near East in the early part of the PPNB and the chipped stone tools made in the PPNB changed over to be often made from naviform core blades which were used as blanks to be further shaped into tools.
Other things that we have seen before int he Near East saw improvements in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Stone beads started to turn up at sites in the Near East in the later part of the Epipalaeolithic, and were traded around, sometimes over long distances. Well, those beads, and the movement of beads, didn’t stop with the change to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stone beads are more common in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, and are found in a wider range of styles and made from a wider range of types of stone. They are also still travelling around the Near East, much like they were before if now in slightly larger numbers.
Another thing which we saw very occasionally in the Epipalaeolithic of the Near East starts to turn up across the Near East in the PPNA. Unlike beads, which only become a bit more common, stone vessels become a lot more common across many parts of the Near East. These are most often made of different types of limestone or other easily-worked stone. Sometimes they are plain, sometimes they are highly polished, and sometimes they are covered in decoration. They are usually closer in size to a large soup bowl, but sometimes we find big versions, like limestone platters up to one meter (three feet) across.
Limestone was not only used to make vessels in the PPNA and PPNB. It also started to be common, at least in Anatolia and the southern Levant, to use limestone to make limewash plaster for making the walls and floors of houses brighter, cleaner, and easier to maintain. This was not only a nice decorative improvement, but it meant that people would have needed to have the technology to make very hot fires which could stay hot for a long time, in order to convert limestone into lime (or quicklime), which could be mixed with water to dissolve into limewash plaster.
The spread of these new technologies across the Near East, as well as the movement of stone beads and increasing amounts of obsidian, have led archaeologists to suggest that the PPNB saw a large social network spread across the Near East. In this “PPNB Interaction Sphere” people lived in houses organised into villages, grew their own food rather than collecting it in the wild (more or less), made stone tools with the naviform core technology, and traded ideas and goodies with one another. On the surface, this does look like one very large social network.
Of course, that is on the surface. If we look deeper into the different valleys and rivers of the Near East we can see that these general things which were common across the Near East hide a lot of detail and regional variation. Everyone lived in houses, but the shape and design of these houses is the same in a single valley, or in a pair of connecting valleys, but is different from the houses built by people in a different area. Stone beads and arrowheads were made in a wide range of shapes, and certain shapes were also more common in some areas and not very popular in others. Stone vessels were made in slightly different shapes, and with different types of decoration, in different regions. The details of daily life do not mean that communities of the Near East did not share information and trade goodies like obsidian with one another, but they do mean that people and communities maintained more than one level of social network. At the broad level, they lived within the interaction network of the PPNB Near East. But at the more personal and community scale, they lived in a smaller social bubble of their village and their region. Not every new invention, house shape or decoration was adopted. People chose to adopt what they wanted, and what would help them to feel a part of their social bubble and different from people outside of it. Archaeologists have argued for years about whether the PPNB Near East was a single interaction sphere or a mosaic of smaller cultural groups. Really, both of these are true. It just depends on what level of detail you look at.
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Frahm, E., Campbell, S. and Healey, E. 2016. Caucasus connections? New data and interpretations for Armenian obsidian in Northern Mesopotamia. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 9: 543-564.
Goren, Y. and Goring-Morris, A.N. 2008. Early pyrotechnology in the Near East: experimental lime=plaster production at the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B site of Kfar HaHoresh, Israel. Geoarchaeology 23(6): 779-798.
Groman-Yaroslavski, I., Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E. 2015. Lapidary technology revealed by functional analysis of carnelian beads from the early Neolithic site of Nahal Hemar Cave, southern Levant. Journal of Archaeological Science 58: 77-88.
Ibañez, J.J., Ortega, D., Campos, D., Khalidi, L. and Méndez, V. 2015. Testing complex networks of interaction at the onset of the Near Eastern Neolithic using modelling of obsidian exchange. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 12: 20150210.
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The Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the Near East was a time of many firsts. In addition to changing the way that we lived and got our food, it was also the time when we got villages and village life.
The first recognizable houses appear in the later part of the Epipalaeolithic. However, we don’t really think of the development of settled communities of both related and unrelated people – villages – until the early part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, the PPNA. This is when we get not only permanent houses but also public or community structures. What exactly these buildings-which-were-not-houses were is not always entirely clear. Some of them seem to have had some role in food storage for the community, and some seem to have been places where community events and rituals took place. Some were both of these.
The most famous of these public buildings, especially for the sort which seems to have had some sort of religious or ceremonial function, are the ones from Gobekli Tepe in what is now southeastern Turkey. These have been broadly interpreted as shrines, and each seems to have been used for a certain limited period before it was carefully buried and a new shrine was made and used nearby. This means that we not only have a nice sequence of shrines to look at through time, but thanks to the previous inhabitants of Gobekli Tepe’s decision to bury these shrines at the end of their use, they are very well preserved.
These buildings change over time, as do the houses that we find in Neolithic villages of the PPNA and PPNB. In the PPNA, we are mostly looking at small, round or oval shaped buildings with a variety of building methods. In the PPNB, the buildings are still made using a variety of methods, but they are almost always rectangular. Houses are not only rectangular, but over the course of the PPNB they also start to get more internal divisions, with added rooms and storage areas. Public buildings also start to get more internal architectural details, but not always.
In many sites, we also start to see more than one public building in different parts of the village. This suggests that we might be starting to see more storage of food happening at home, rather than at the level of the community as a whole, and that the social groups of villages might be getting large enough that they are starting to divide into multiple social sub-units (extended families or clans) that live together in the same village. One of the ways that these groups within the same village may have distinguished themselves is through shared ancestry and relationships between their ancestors.
This might explain the use of skulls in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. It was not unusual across the Near East for people to bury their relatives under the house floor. In the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, it was also not unusual to go back later and retrieve a particular skull, or to keep the skull back while the rest of the person was buried. These are found in both houses and public buildings, and can be highly polished from repeated handling. These can also be decorated with plaster to better resemble the living people which they once were.
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After we had a look last week at how we went from gathering to farming plants, this week we are finishing off the change from getting our food in the wild to growing it at home by looking at the process of animal domestication in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) of the Near East.
As with plants, there are several things that we can look at to figure out if a particular animal species is domesticated, and how we can see the domestication process happening. Unlike with plants, where a lot of different species were domesticated in the PPN of the Near East, for animals we only have four species that were domesticated here – sheep, goats, cattle and pigs. As domesticates go, these have been pretty successful, and form a large part of people’s diets all over the world today.
When we look at whether or not an animal is domesticated, or if it is in the process of being domesticated, or if it is arriving into a new area having been domesticated somewhere else, there are a few things that we look for. One of these – as with plants, is the species turning up in new areas where it was not found in the wild. A good example of this is the southern Levant, or southern Mesopotamia.
In the southern Levant, we have a lot of studies of what animals people were eating in the Epipalaeolithic and the PPNA, and it was mostly gazelle. During the course of the PPNB, however, we see sheep and goats turning up as well, and over time these become more and more common, eventually replacing gazelle as the main food animals eaten at archaeological sites.
Another clue that an animal is getting domesticated is that for each of these four species the domesticated versions are smaller than the wild ones. When we look at sites during the PPNB, we see sheep and goats reaching a smaller size by about 7500 or as early as 8000 cal BCE and cattle and pigs reaching a smaller size by about 7000 or as early as 7500 cal BCE. These smaller animals are what we call “morphologically domestic”, meaning domestic in size and shape. This isn’t the end of the story, though.
For sheep and goats – which are more common on Epipalaeolithic and PPNA sites in the Taurus and Zagros mountains – we see differences in the age and sex of the animals eaten between these periods before domestication started and during the early parts of the PPNB when people started to domesticate them. What we see at this early point is animals that are still wild in size and shape (what we call “proto-domestic”) but which are being controlled by people. We know that they are being controlled by people because we people made choices in which animals to eat. What we see is a larger number of animals being killed before 18 months to 2 years of age, compared with the Epipalaeolithic. Most interestingly, based on the measurements most of these animals being eaten young were males, and the females were left alive for a few extra years. This allowed the females to have several babies each to keep the herd growing, but gt rid of the excess males before they got old enough to try to fight to breed with the females. You don’t need very many adult male sheep or goats in order to keep getting new generations, and the males can be more aggressive and difficult to control when they reach adulthood – so they got the chop before (or when) they became difficult. We start to see this pattern of management happening about 8300 cal BCE, so several hundred years before the animals got smaller.
We know that cattle and pigs got smaller also when they were domesticated, and we are pretty sure that they must also have had a period of being “proto-domestic” before this happened. The difficulty with cattle and pigs is that their wild relatives turn up all over the Near East, as well as all over Europe and a lot of Asia. We know from genetic studies that they came from the Near Eastern populations of these wild relatives (at least for taurine cattle – Bos taurus, cattle were also domesticated independently in India from Indian populations of wild cattle to become what is now zebu cattle, Bos indicus). Figuring out exactly where in the Near East their domestication started is harder, because neither wild cattle nor wild pigs were ever the main hunted animal in the Epipalaeolithic or the PPNA. So we don’t have any hints as to areas where they might have started to be herded differently, and because they don’t turn up in huge numbers at Epipalaeolithic or Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites it is hard to tell if any site or region from the Near East was doing proto-domestic herd management like we see with sheep and goats.
We have similar problems with dogs. We know that by the Late Epipalaeolithic in the Near East we have domestic dogs. We have some dogs in burials from this time but that is not the only clue. The difficulty is that all of the things that we use to look at domestication in sheep, goats, cattle and pigs do not work with dogs. Dogs do not get smaller when they were first domesticated – small dogs do not come along until after the Neolithic, so thousands of years later. Also, we were not keeping dogs as food sources the way that we were with the other animals, so there was no reason to kill them off based on their age or sex. What we do know, is that all domestic dogs are descended from eurasian grey wolves. And I do mean ALL domestic dogs – including the ones from pre-contact North and South America. The only way that this could have happened is if dogs were already domesticated before people moved into the Americas from Asia, bringing their dogs along with them. Thus, we know that dogs must have been domesticated before this happened, or before the start of the Late Epipalaeolithic in the Near East.
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Last week we looked at the second, Holocene half of the Epipalaeolithic. We saw that people in many parts of the Near East seem to have been settling down a bit more, and were building more permanent houses to live in. These houses also have evidence for storage, which may well have been happening in earlier periods, but this is the first solid (and literally built in stone) evidence that we have for it. This week we are moving forward into the Neolithic, specifically into the Early or Pre-Pottery Neolithic, which runs in the Near East from about 9600 cal BCE (about 11,600 years ago) to between 7000 and about 6500 cal BCE, depending on where you are in the Near East.
The Pre-Pottery Neolithic saw a lot of changes in the way that people lived in the Near East. One of these, one of the most important ones and one of the earliest changes that we have evidence for, is the domestication of plants. We used to think of this as some ‘bright idea’ that was had by one group of people, or a few neighbouring groups of people. They experimented with domesticating plants, domesticated a whole package of plants, and then these spread out across the Near East and beyond.
We now know that this concept of a single origin of domestication, and also of a ‘package’ of domesticated plants, is wrong. People seem to have been experimenting with cultivating wild plants, and with starting to domesticate a range of plants, across the Near East starting in the first part of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A or PPNA, which runs from about 9600 cal BCE to about 8500 cal BCE or 8300 cal BCE, depending on where in the Near East you are) where people in the Levant and northern Mesopotamia as well as potentially in other regions started to cultivate wild plants closer to home. Beginning in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (or PPNB, which runs from about 8500 or 8300 cal BCE until the end of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic) we start to see evidence of changes to plants consistent with domestication. These changes vary depending on the plant in question, but the most common signs that we have are an increase in the size of seeds and – in grains – changes to the outer casing of the seed where it attaches to the stalk.
The increase in the size of seeds, and the change in grains from mostly having the shattering-spikelet type of stalks to mostly having the non-shattering-spikelet type of stalks, was not a very fast change. It is not until about 7500 cal BCE that we start to see these larger, domesticated type of grains and pulses being the dominant type found on sites. The collection of wild plants, including the collection of wild grains and pulses of the same type that were being grown at the same site, also continued throughout the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. The amount of wild plants being collected varied, both through time as well as between different regions of the Near East. The big focus on grains and grain domestication seems to have been something mostly seen in the Levant, although early domestic grains also turn up in smaller or greater quantities in northern Mesopotamia, the Taurus mountains, the Zagros mountains and – after the start of the PPNB – in Anatolia.
The importance of pulses to the diets of people in PPNA and PPNB communities was also different in different regions as well as through time. Pulses were not completely ignored anywhere, but they do seem to have been a bigger part of the diet in the southern Levant. In the case of one pulse, the faba bean (Vicia faba), recent research suggests that it might have been domesticated in the southern Levant. This has been harder to pin down, as the wild ancestor of the faba bean isn’t around any more. However, the oldest examples that we have of the domesticated faba bean come from the southern Levant, from PPNB sites such as Ahihud, Nahal Zippori and Yiftahel. Recently, wild versions of the faba bean were found in excavations of the late Epipalaeolithic site of El-Wad Terrace, dating to about 14,000 years ago.
Abbo, S. and Gopher, A. 2020. Plant domestication in the Neolithic Near East: the humans-plants liaison. Quaternary Science Reviews 242: 106412.
Abbo, S., Peleg, Z., Lev-Yadun, S. and Gopher, A. 2021. Does the proportion of shattering vs. non-shattering cereal remains in archaeobotanical assemblages reflect Near Eastern Neolithic arable fields? Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 284: 104339.
Arranz-Otaegui, A., College, S., Ibañez, J.J. and Zapata, L. 2016. Crop husbandry activities and wild plant gathering, use and consumption at the EPPNB Tell Qarassa North (south Syria). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 25: 629-65.
Asouti, E. and Fuller, D.Q. 2012. From foraging to farming in the southern Levant: the development of Epipalaeolithic and Pre-Pottery Neolithic plant management strategies. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 149-162.
Asouti, E. and Fuller, D.Q. 2013. A contextual approach to the emergence of agriculture in southwest Asia: reconstructing Early Neolithic plant-food production. Current Anthropology 54(3): 299-345.
Belfer-Cohen, A. and Goring-Morris, N. 2010. The initial Neolithic in the Near East: why it is so difficult to deal with these PPNA… Mitekufat Haeven: Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 40: 149-166.
Caracuta, V., Weinstein-Evron, M., Kaufman, D., Yeshrun, R., Silvent, J. and Boaretto, E. 2016. 14,000-year-old seeds indicate the Levantine origin of the lost progenitor of faba bean. Nature: Scientific Reports 6: 37399.
Edwards, P.C., Meadows, J., Sayej, G. and Westway, M. 2004. From the PPNA to the PPNB: new views from the southern Levant after excavations at Zahrat adh-Dhra’ 2 in Jordan. Paléorient 30(2): 21-60.
Fairbairn, A.S., Jenkins, E., Baird, D. and Jacobsen, G. 2014. 9th millennium plant subsistence in the central Anatolian highlands: new evidence from Pinarbaşi, Karaman Province, central Anatolia. Journal of Archaeological Science 41: 801-812.
Fuller, D.Q. 2007. Contrasting patterns in crop domestication and domestication rates: recent archaeobotanical insights from the Old World. Annals of Botany 100: 903-924.
Fuller, D.Q., Asouti, E. and Purugganan, M.D. 2012. Cultivation as slow evolutionary entanglement: comparative data on rate and sequence of domestication. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 131-145.
Riehl, S., Benz, M., Conard, N.J., Darabi, H., Deckers, K., Nashli, H.F. and Zeidi-Kulehparcheh, M. 2012. Plant use in three Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites of the northern and eastern Fertile Crescent: a preliminary report. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 95-106.
Weide, A., Riehl, S., Zeidi, M. and Conard, N.J. 2018. A systematic review of wild grass exploitation in relation to emerging cereal cultivation throughout the Epipalaeolithic and aceramic Neolithic of the Fertile Crescent. PLOS One 13(1): e0189811.
White, C.E. and Makarewicz, C.A. 2012. Harvesting practices and early Neolithic barley cultivation at el-Hemmeh, Jordan. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 85-94.