THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Konya Plain | From Foraging to Farming (the beginning of Anatolian food culture)

Experimental firing of an oven inside a reconstructed building-Jason Quinlan)
Experimental firing of an oven inside a reconstructed building (Photo © Jason Quinlan)

We are on the outskirts of Hayıroğlu village trying to imagine what it was like to live here 10,500 years ago. This is the western edge of the Konya Plain in south-central Anatolia, roughly 250 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast. It is a steppe landscape, a patchwork quilt of fields designed for agriculture and pasture, crucial to an indigenous food culture that is being reshaped as we speak.

It was also a steppe landscape 10,500 years ago – with a huge difference. It was encased by mountain ranges and an enveloping forest that had emerged in the millennia after the gradual closure of the last ice age roughly 5,000 years earlier, with a climate characterised by constant rainfall – unlike the conditions today that require irrigation from the nearby Çarşamba alluvial river during a summer climate that is generally dry and hot. The inhabitants were foragers who ate ‘everything that walked, flew or swam,’ content to live in oval-shaped mud-brick houses on a hilltop amidst a wet-land habitat fairly similar to the area around lake Beyșehir to the west today.

Boncuklu Höyük, Turkish for beaded mound, was found on the last day of an eight-year survey begun in 1995. Led by Liverpool University archaeologist Douglas Baird, the surveyers sought to identify ancient settlements as part of the Konya Plain Project (of which more later). Named by the villagers of Hayıroğlu because of the occurence of beads on the surface of the site after heavy rain, the advent that was Boncuklu has shattered most of the long-held assumptions about nomadism and sedentism, agriculture and herding, the domestication of animals, symbolism and belief systems and the sorrowful descent into unhealthy sloth and selfish desire. It holds clues, which may take several generations to reveal, about this change in human lifestyle, after millennia as nomadic foragers and clever hunters. It is one of the most exciting finds in the history of archaeology because it tells us something about the gradual transformation from nomadism to sedentism.

Before the secrets of Boncuklu were revealed, archaeologists concluded that Çatalhöyük (fork mound), a stone’s throw away to the south, was the challenge to the traditional view about the neolithic transition. Instead of a coterminous revolution, the belief was that a shared cultural event sparked the change in lifestyle, something so appealing that everyone left their old tools behind in the wilderness and settled down with new tools. Ian Hodder, the Cambridge University archaeologist who led the excavation at Çatalhöyük for 25 years, said ‘trying to understand why these people bothered to come together’ remained their shared ambition.

He was not alone in his assumption that Çatalhöyük was special. Ulf-Dietrich Schoop argued in 2005 (three years after Baird began to excavate the Boncuklu mound) that the people of the central Anatolian plain weren’t much interested in sedentry because they had adapted to their environment. ‘In general, a steppe landscape is very favorable for a hunter-gatherer economy; there the hunt of gregarious animals – those that run together in herds or flocks – is much less labor intensive than that in areas with dense vegetation, where sight is hindered and wildlife tends to be smaller and moves individually or in small clusters.’

‘Furthermore, some of the wild progenitors of those plant species which later became an important part of the neolithic package – generally those preferring the habitat of the steppe – were at home in Central Anatolia, e.g. einkorn wheat, lentil and bitter vetch. Thus, even before domestication, the region must have been quite favourable for gathering.’

When Dr Andrew Fairbairn of the University of Queensland discovered archaeological life at Boncuklu, and began to place the site in the context of other settlements, he came to a startling conclusion. ‘Boncuklu is just a little bit more way out. It’s these funny little huts. For me it’s just something slightly more distant and a little bit more alien. It feels quite different. A little bit like you’re on a slightly different world.’

‘There’s some kind of use of crops but it seems to be quite small – it seems to be almost quite marginal in a lot of ways. What we have is, basically, a hunter-gatherer society there that is settling down, using some crops – importing them or trading them with other settlements.’

The inhabitants of Boncuklu were mobile. Fairbairn’s team found sea-shells from the distant Mediterranean, animal bones included wild goats from the mountains and plant species that were not indigenous.

So what did they eat? They ate the food of the wet-land – birds and waterfowl, fresh-water mussels and snails, fish and frogs and tortoises. They also enjoyed cuts of meat from the wild animals – aurochs (large wild cattle), goats and pigs. They foraged for berries and eggs, and for roots and tubers like clubrush that still grow in the wet-lands of the Konya Plain. They traded for wild and domesticated wheat grains and probably for almonds and other nuts.

How did they cook? There is evidence that they roasted animals whole over a slow fire and it is fair to say that cuts of meat, small animals and whole birds were also spit-roasted. Mollusks would have been cooked in the embers of the fire. Tubers were probably cooked the same way. Did they make pastes with the almonds and berries? That is plausible, there is evidence they had the ancient equivalents of mortars and pestles. Did they make bread with the grains? Probably. Did they crack the wheat to make bulgur and cook it in earthenware pots? Perhaps not, there are no signs of pottery at Boncuklu.

What is interesting is the belief among some archaeologists that the people of Boncuklu were the ancestors of the people who founded Çatalhöyük, but that convenient similarity (because of their close proximity) does not explain the existence of two other contemporaneous settlements – Can Hasan, south-east of Konya near the modern city of Karaman under the Taurus mountains and Aşıklı Höyük, north-east of Konya near the modern city of Aksaray and the volcanic tufa cones of Cappadocia. Had other hunters and gatherers heard about this settled life!

The structures at Göbekli Tepe near Gaziantep and Hallan Çemi below the source of the Tigris in eastern Anatolia indicate a different type of settlement.

Abu Hureyra in the Upper Euphrates Valley predated the Anatolian sites. Revealed in the early 1970s, it sparked a debate among archaeologists, who wondered why hunter-gatherers would come together to cultivate the wild seeds of lentils, rye and wheat. ‘No hunter-gatherers occupying a productive locality with a range of wild foods able to provide for all seasons are likely to have started cultivating their caloric staples willingly. Energy investment per unit of energy return would have been too high.’

The sedentary foragers of the Jordan Valley 13,000 years ago continued to hunt boar, cattle and deer. From Jericho in the south to Mureybet in the north, the Levant offered the best of both worlds. When the ancient Anatolians began to settle the Levanters had already established small villages, and there is no evidence to suggest they knew about each other.

Migration from the Levant into the heart of Anatolia is also disputed.

Aşıklı Höyük (approximately 9,500 years old), Can Hasan (9,500) and Çatalhöyük (9,000) are synonymous with one fact – these communities are early farmers, they herd goats and sheep, they harvest grains and legumes, cook in stone hearths and eat bread! Anatolia’s rich bread culture has begun and will continue into the modern era where the tradition of baking bread in stone ovens remains undiminished.

As for the cooking of cracked wheat, well that probably did take place at Çatalhöyük and still does today in nearby Hayıroğlu – 12 kilometers away.