First farmers ate bacon before bread.

From the NY Times

DIGGING at the ruins of a village in southeastern Turkey, where people lived more than 10,000 years ago, archeologists expected to turn up the usual traces of a society on the verge of the agriculture revolution. There should be leftover grains of wild wheat and barley and perhaps the bones of butchered sheep and goats in some early stage of domestication.

The archeologists found nothing of the kind. Instead, to their complete surprise, they dug up the ample remains of pig bones.

The discovery, they said, strongly suggests that the pig was the earliest animal that people domesticated for food. The diminished size of the molars was one of several clues that the transformation of wild boars into pigs was under way at that time. Radiocarbon analysis put the date at 10,000 to 10,400 years ago.

So in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains at a site known as Hallan Cemi, the domestication of the pig appeared to have occurred 2,000 years earlier than once thought — and 1,000 years before the taming and herding of sheep and goats.

Much earlier, at least 12,000 years ago, wolves more or less invited domestication as the dog, developing a symbiotic relationship with people. They became camp followers, sentinels and “best friend.” Only in a few cultures later on were dogs served as food.

A broader significance, archeologists said, was the absence of any sign of wheat or barley at the settlement. The prevailing assumption, based mainly on research to the south in Syria and the Jordan River Valley, has been that with the end of the last ice age, wild grains were abundant in the more temperate climate over the entire Middle East. People settled down to harvest them, and this led to agriculture, animal husbandry and eventually the rise of cities and civilization.

“All early agricultural models are predicated on the assumption that people gathered wild wheat and other grains,” said Dr. Michael Rosenberg, an archeologist at the University of Delaware and director of the Hallan Cemi excavations. “But this is the earliest settlement site so far north, and it has no cereals. So another resource must have made it possible to settle down.”

In a report at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archeologists, Dr. Richard W. Redding, a University of Michigan archeologist and member of the discovery team, said that a heavy reliance on data from southern sites in the Levant might have resulted “in a very narrow view of the origin of food production.” There may have been a variety of ways by which people made the transition from foraging to farming, and some of them did not include the intensive use of wild cereals as a crucial first step.

Dr. Patricia Wattenmaker, a University of Virginia archeologist with wide experience in Middle East excavations, said the new findings were among the first from this part of the Turkish highlands in prehistory and were certain to force a serious rethinking of theories regarding human subsistence patterns leading up to agriculture. Roles of Environment and Culture

“It looks as if the pattern varies from place to place,” Dr. Wattenmaker said. “This takes the punch out of arguments that environmental factors” over a wider area triggered the transition toward agriculture, she added, and suggested that “cultural factors were really the key.”

Dr. Robert J. Braidwood, a professor emeritus of archeology at the University of Chicago who is a specialist in research on early agriculture, praised the Hallan Cemi excavations for providing a much-needed examination of pre-agricultural cultures beyond the Levant. But the Turkish village of no more than 150 inhabitants was extremely small, he cautioned, and evidence from three or four more sites in the area might be necessary before drawing any sweeping conclusions.

The Hallan Cemi site is scheduled to be flooded next year by a new dam on the Batman River.

In three years of excavations at Hallan Cemi, though, archeologists have established that people there had left the wandering life of hunting and gathering for a more sedentary village existence. Ruins of small stone houses and stone sculptures indicated a permanent settlement, and the growth pattern in fresh water clam shells at the site revealed year-round occupation. Evidence of long-distance trade in obsidian, copper and Mediterranean shells reflected the expansion of economic horizons by an increasingly complex society.

All this was happening at the time of the Natufians, people in the Jordan Valley who were probably the first to adopt settling down as a permanent way of life. But if wild cereals were critical to the Natufians’ transition, the people at Hallan Cemi apparently depended on gathering nuts and seeds, hunting wild sheep and deer and raising pigs. The absence of any wild grains at the site was determined by Dr. Mark Nesbitt, a paleobotanist at University College, London.

No single piece of the pig evidence is conclusive, Dr. Redding reported, but all the clues together “are congruent with the early phases of the domestication of pigs.” Clue on Domestication

Not only are the bones plentiful and the molars smaller, he said, but they show that the people appeared to favor young male pigs more than would be expected if they were hunting wild animals. A preponderance of the bones were of male pigs under one year of age. If they were raising pigs, they would spare most of the young females for breeding. Survivorship patterns of hunted animals reveal a more normal age distribution.

Pigs may have been the villagers’ insurance against famine caused by any sudden shortage of nuts and fruits and wild game. In a pre-agricultural sedentary culture, Dr. Rosenberg said, such shortages posed a greater risk because the people had a more limited foraging and hunting range.

“We think they fiddled around with maintaining animals to decrease that risk,” he said, “and pigs make sense if they are not gathering and growing grains.”

For one thing, young pigs are easily obtained and tamed. They require little labor to control since they can be left to forage for themselves throughout the community. And they are the most efficient domesticated animal, Dr. Redding said, in that they convert 35 percent of food energy into meat, compared with 13 percent for sheep or a mere 6.5 percent for cattle.

Pigs, the archeologist concluded, may have represented one more transitional step in some pre-agricultural societies; the pattern was not always a direct progression from settling down to growing cereals to raising animals. Perhaps the subsistent strategy of the highland villagers was to supplement their diets of nuts, fruits and grasses with pigs until cereal production was adopted. In time, Dr. Redding said, the highlanders took up grain cultivation, probably as an innovation borrowed from the south. Decline of Pigs

In any case, the archeologists said, as soon as the people of Hallan Cemi began growing grain, there was a sharp decline in domestic pigs, which were gradually replaced by domestic sheep and goats. It was a necessity. Pigs compete with people for cereals. They could no longer be left to forage unattended near the village and fields, and they are not as easily herded as sheep and goats.

Although some of the interpretations are tentative and more research is required, Dr. Rosenberg and Dr. Redding said they were increasingly confident in their evidence for the early domestication of the pig. And contrary to previous findings in the Levant, they said, there could be sedentary village life without an abundance of grains, wild or cultivated.

“Hallan Cemi is almost a mirror image of what’s going on at this time in the Levant,” Dr. Redding said. “We will have to rethink all the models we’ve been developing about early food production.”

As a side comment to this article, the oldest domesticated wheat has been found just south of the Turkish border, but originates in Turkey.  It didn’t seem to spread into the Natufian culture particularly quickly, as 2,000 years later some were still eating  wild wheat. Also originating in Turkey is the wild chickpea, another neolithic staple crop. I’m really starting to doubt the Natufians were the originators of the farming revolution. More so, in the light that the farmers of the Neolithic expansion didn’t seem to look like them(Natufians were part Negroid), they seem to resemble to Anatolians more.

Also, the temple at Gobekli Tepe predates farming in most of the Natufian Levant by a few hundred, years, and that kind of stone temple building is not entry level civilisation (11,500 years ago).

It seems to me that the south east of Turkey needs to be thoroughly dug up so we can track down the original sites!

One response to “First farmers ate bacon before bread.

  1. Great article! It always seemed to me that because cereal grains generally need some major work before they’re edible — usually at least two steps (hulling and some combination of grinding, soaking, cooking) it was surprising they’d actually be first on a list of agricultural foods.

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