Turkey’s Neolithic Farming Village is a Window, and a Mirror

Alexandra de Cramer

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Archeological treasures unearthed at the Neolithic village of Cayonu, 40 kilometers northwest of modern-day Diyarbakir, in southeast Turkey, are challenging previous theories on prehistoric agrarian societies. In the process, they’re teaching us a few things about ourselves.

In the early 1960s, Robert J Braidwood, an American archeologist and head of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, popularized a hypothesis that humanity’s transition to agriculture didn’t occur in Lower Mesopotamia, as many believed, but in the shadows of the Taurus Mountains, in what is today southern Turkey. The cradle of civilization, Braidwood argued, was misplaced.

To test his premise, Braidwood launched a joint project between the universities of Chicago and Istanbul. Co-founded by Halet Cambel, one of Turkey’s first female archeologists, the team set their sights on Gobekli Tepe, a Neolithic-era ritual site used by hunter-gatherers between 9,600 and 8,200 BCE. Not long after, the Cayonu Mound was found.

Believed to have been inhabited from 10,200 to 4,200 BCE, the 4,500-square-meter mound was unearthed in 1963. But political turmoil in the region led to a pause in excavation in 1991. After a hiatus of more than two decades, work resumed in 2015 under the direction of archeologist Fatma Asli Erim Ozdogan.

Today, the site that Braidwood and Cambel found is helping experts rethink humanity’s path from hunting and gathering to villagefarming life more than 10,000 years ago. The site is scheduled to become an open-air museum in 2025.

Archeological understanding of what qualified as Neolithic was different in the 1960s than it is today. Then, archeologists believed that the sculptures they found were ruins of an atelier from the Romans. The invention of radiocarbon dating put an end to this debate, and data gathered from Gobekli Tepe and Cayonu have helped redefine characteristics of the Neolithic age.

Ozdogan had joined a dig on the banks of the Euphrates in 1976, and two years later, she was beside Cambel at Cayonu, sifting through the sands of the Tigris River basin. Speaking in October 2021, Ozdogan emphasized that what continues to make Cayonu unique is the global expertise that it has attracted.

Unlike other archeological digs at the time, the Cayonu excavation was a collaborative effort, drawing talent from around the world. This led to several archeological inventions – including a special ladder that allowed archeologists to take overhead photos of the site, decades before drones made the task easy.

It also enabled many important discoveries. Barbara Lawrence, an American paleozoologist, theorized that the first domestication of pigs was at Cayonu, an idea that was later supported through work by her student, Richard Meadow.

Willem van Zeist, the founder of the Paleobotany Institute at Groningen University, in the Netherlands, traced human’s first cultivation of emmer wheat, lentils, and chickpeas to Cayonu.

Metallurgy studies were conducted by Robert Maddin, who headed the metallurgy department at the University of Pennsylvania. Maddin’s discovery of 9,000-year-old copper tools are the earliest-known hammered and smelted objects. Cayonu’s proximity to the Ergani copper mines, home to the world’s oldest copper deposits, facilitated the melting and craftsmanship of copper.

Ozdogan and her team have made some discoveries themselves. One of their first finds in 2015 helped confirm the first human use of beeswax for domestic purposes.

The most important structures at Cayonu are the skull building, which houses a limestone altar and the remains of more than 400 bodies, and a smelted-copper terrazzo, adorned with stones pressed into a cement base. Both are evidence of a village-like lifestyle at Cayonu.

The skull building is particularly precious. Blood isotope data collected at the site reveals the presence of now-extinct cattle species at Cayonu. They are the first blood samples ever collected of an extinct species.

The skull building has also yielded genealogical data of the region’s inhabitants. For example, we know that six of the human bones were older than 40 years of age and the oldest was 63. While the villagers’ ritual activities remain a mystery, the tiny bits of data we do have offer clues to the cultural complexity of Cayonu.

Last month, research from Turkey’s Hacettepe University revealed that the people of Cayonu were of mixed ancestry, hailing from both east and west of the Fertile Crescent. It was, in other words, a Neolithic melting pot of biological families that received and accepted immigrants – not unlike our greatest cities of today.

The people of Cayonu, the earliest known farming village in human history, practiced complex rituals, ate diverse foods, and passed on traditions to their children that we can only guess at. But they also shared many of the same traits and beliefs that we continue to value today – such as innovation, humility, acceptance, and unity.

Much has changed since Cayonu was a bustling farming community at the foot of the Taurus Mountains. Fortunately, some things haven’t.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.