Where do hunters and collectors settle down?

health : Domestic hunters: why did humans become sedentary?

The transition from a hunter-gatherer community to a sedentary farming culture was decisive for the emergence of human society. For the American evolutionary biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond, author of the book "Poor and Rich", one thing is certain: With agriculture, humans created the basis of modern civilization at the end of the last Ice Age.

In fact, the close connection between agriculture, sedentarism and urban civilization has so far been part of the textbook wisdom of archeology: Because nomadic hunter-gatherer groups began growing wild plants, taming and breeding young wild animals almost 10,000 years ago settling down, they created the first settlements. Near today's Jericho they founded the oldest known settlement so far; around 10,500 years ago it had developed into a small village.

The oldest city-like human community, almost 9000 years old, was excavated in the 1960s in Catal Hüyük, Turkey, in today's Konya province. This winding, city-like large settlement made of adobe bricks, in which an estimated 10,000 people lived, became the symbol of a unique "Neolithic revolution" that combined agriculture and urban culture. From this later, almost 5500 years ago, the first advanced cultures such as Uruk in Mesopotamia emerged.

But as is often the case with known things: They don't stand up to scrutiny. Because finds from this phase of human history are still incomplete, new excavations and techniques can quickly overturn apparently established knowledge. Recently, archaeologists have been creating a new picture of the crucial transition that made us what we are today: urban and cultural beings.

Recent excavations in the Anatolian Catal Hüyük as well as in other settlement areas, especially in the Middle East, refute the thesis that urban systems and the domestication of arable plants and wild animals are two sides of the same coin. The "Neolithic Revolution" of the now deceased Australian prehistorian Gordon Childe did not exist, claims a young guild mainly of Anglo-American archaeologists.

The excavations show that the Neolithic inhabitants of Çatalhöyük, for example, made a substantial living from hunting. Apparently they settled in settlements not because of agriculture, but because of a still puzzling cultural motive.

The excavations of Çatalhöyük

Since the archaeologist James Mellaart discovered Catal Hüyük in 1958, his find has been an archaeological sensation and the oldest known city. During more than a thousand years of uninterrupted settlement, the first townspeople had created a 20-meter-high settlement on more than 12 hectares. Still the largest human settlement of its time, Çatalhöyük has lost none of its importance despite further finds in the Middle East. On the contrary: since the beginning of the 1990s, a team led by Ian Hodder from Cambridge University and Ruth Tringham from the University of California at Berkeley have uncovered at least 12 consecutive layers of settlement and helped the relatively young archaeological discipline of micromorphology to its first successes.

Often enough, the significance of this settlement only becomes clear when studying the detailed finds under the microscope. But the closer the look, the slower the research progresses. Hardly more than two houses are currently exposed per excavation season. The accompanying finds from these excavations show that agriculture in Çatalhöyük was not very progressive and that the supposedly first town was neither the cradle nor the center of Neolithic cattle breeding.

The residents had settled along a river that regularly overflowed its banks. Grasses and cereals, including wheat and barley, grew in the wetlands. However, there is no evidence that the grains were already ground into bread at that time. And the comparison of bone finds from wild cattle with later domesticated cattle showed that Çatalhöyük was not the cradle of cattle breeding.

Despite the number of inhabitants, Çatalhöyük was little more than an overpopulated village. For archaeologists, whether a town or a village is more than a question of quantity. While in Uruk, thanks to the surplus of a functioning agriculture, it was possible for some residents to be "survived" as artists or priests by the farmers in the area, this social system did not yet exist in Çatalhöyük.

A typical characteristic of a village in contrast to a city is that farmers live in it. In Çatalhöyük, recent research has shown no evidence of a real division of labor. The houses have the same basic plan. Microscopic analyzes of the clay and other building materials used, however, show that no two are alike. With a division of labor and a kind of masons' guild, the opposite would be expected.

Apparently family clans have settled next to each other without training a new caste or building shared facilities - such as temples - as another hallmark of real urban centers. These extended families, who settled together as groups in four or five houses, are the basic unit of the decentralized community of Çatalhöyük.

The fertile crescent

It is puzzling, however, why the estimated at least 2,000 families did not spread out continuously in the wide, fertile environment, but lived in a confined space. "Only when we have learned to decipher the religious life and social fabric of this settlement will we understand Çatalhöyük," says Ian Hodder. He believes that the so-called Neolithic Revolution was preceded by a cultural evolution and mental transformation of humans. Agriculture and cattle breeding did not allow people to found cities in the narrow strip of the "Fertile Crescent"; rather, it was a new culture of religious practices, interwoven with artistic creation, which is documented in the murals in Çatalhöyük.

Meanwhile, prehistorians know that permanent human settlements have arisen several times independently of one another in many parts of the world: in the Middle East, in China, and in Central and South America. The fact that the emergence of agriculture coincided with the first settlements used to appear more than coincidental to researchers. But the alleged temporal correlation does not establish any causality. Especially since settlements in many parts of the world often only emerged thousands of years after the invention of agriculture.

New finds everywhere in the well-known Neolithic settlement centers relocate the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry more and more frequently to a period between 13,000 and 10,000 years. Analysis of tiny plant fossils shows that the earliest domestication of arable crops - grain in the Middle East, rice in China, pumpkin in Ecuador, and finally corn in America - was thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Even places as improbable as the tropical rainforest of South America, from which the wild forms of cassava and yams originate, may have been early centers of plant breeding.

Apparently, the first farmers provided a balance in food with their products when many hunted wild animals disappeared at the end of the last ice age and forced former hunter-gatherer cultures around the world to adopt new strategies. Diamond's thesis that climate and geography decide the fate of societies is confirmed here.

The environment at the end of the Ice Age made the alleged "Neolithic Revolution" a long phase of complex changes, during which man gradually changed from hunters and gatherers to farmers and townspeople. In a kind of chain reaction, this transition finally brought about a number of economic, political and social developments, especially in Eurasia, but not in the tropical countries of the Third World, to which we owe the civilization and technologies of the industrialized nations.

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