The Origin and Growth of a Research Focus— Agricultural Beginnings


By: Robert J. Braidwood

Originally Published in 1986

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Let us first agree that our concern here is only with what happened in south­western Asia, to its broadest con­ceivable margins. There were cer­tainly other regions of the world wherein independent agricultural beginnings were made.

Secondly, I beg indulgence for what may sometimes seem pure immodesty. Mrs. Braidwood and I did undertake the first field project specifically pointed towards reclaim­ing evidence of a very early food production in the Near East. We were convinced that there was a critical gap in the excavated evi­dence for later southwestern Asiatic prehistory. That we were the first to begin such field work was over­whelmingly the result of pure good luck. It involved: 1) Our own pre-World War II field experience, which came soon to bear on late aspects of the prehistory of northern Syria, now the Turkish province of Hatay (the Amouq). 2) Our grad­uate education and early teaching experience in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Anthro­pology at the University of Chicago. Participation in Henri Frankfort’s magnificent seminar and stimulation by Sol Tax and W.M. Krogman in the design of a new anthropology course were critical elements of our formation. 3) Again, there was the sheer good luck that allowed us to return to the field in 1947, to work a site on the Zagros slopes (Jarmo; Figs. 1, 2). The site itself was not selected by us, but by official colleagues and friends in the Iraqi government’s antiquities service, who understood what we wanted. 4) The unfolding of financial sup­port, particularly from the National Science Foundation in the mid 1950s, which afforded us a natural sciences field staff of effective and interested colleagues.

It was, of course, primarily the ideas of that fascinating prehistorian V. Gordon Childe, about the great importance of the appearance of an effective food-producing way of life, which set the stage for our post-World War H field activity in the matter. (In a way, ours was the role of field contractors for the bridge that Gordon Childe had designed.) Childe’s 1935 presidential address to the Prehistoric Society and his 1936 hook Man Makes Himself show how his understandings were already in quite clear focus. He himself, however, credited Elliot Smith, Harold Peake, and others with having stimulated him. His first (1928) edition of The Most Ancient East does follow the theme set in Peake and Fleure’s 1927 Corridors of Time, III, somewhat closely. Given what little real evidence was then available to them, Peake and Fleure did a most creditable job. It is interesting to contrast their 1927 attempt with that of the distin­guished Oxford historian J. L. Myres in his first two chapters of the 1923 Cambridge Ancient History, I. Myres wrote around the subject a great deal, tried to blend in spec­ulations about anthropometry, with links to “long heads” or “round heads,” but did not bring the matter of agricultural origins into real focus. In Myres’s earlier (1910) Dawn of History, concerning times and re­gions which certainly should have invited clear thought in the matter, there is virtually nothing at all of interest to the point of agricultural origins.

It would be an interesting but massive job to reach further back­wards in time, regarding specula­tions about the importance and first appearance of food production. In the first few pages of his recent (1976) little book, Food Production and Its Consequences, P.E.L. Smith suggests we would even have to begin with the Book of Genesis. There would also be trouble over what real meanings and interests we might assign to the words used by various subsequent historical figures. Smith notes, for example, Rousseau’s 1755 attempt to link the conse­quences of agricultural beginnings with the introduction of the idea of property and the necessity to do work. Here is that old “by the sweat of thy brow” theme. Smith also—as have others—links Childe’s “Neo­lithic Revolution” ideas back, by way of Marxist thinking, to Engels and Lewis Henry Morgan. There must be the grist for several long Ph.D. dissertations here!

But back to the early post-World War II years. The work at Jarmo, and Bruce Howe’s at Karim Shahir and Palegawra, did not at first stimulate other field work specifi­cally pointed at the gap in our so-called gap chart of 1945. We may certainly assume that Kathleen Kenyon went to Tell-es-Sultan be­cause of its identification with Biblical Jericho. She did, however, resume work in Garstang’s earlier soundings as well as in his later levels. The Soleckis made exposures at Zawi Chemi Shanidar to elaborate their understanding of materials found in the upper levels of their deep exposure at the nearby Shan­idar cave. To our minds, Jean Perrot’s 1954 discovery of Mallaha was the next really important speci­fically focused step. It showed that the Natufians were not bound to have been cave dwellers alone, and that more evidence of them might well add more substance to the notion of a level of incipient food production.

By 1960, field activity more-or­less directly focused on agricultural beginnings was becoming fairly common, both along the Levant and east of the Euphrates. (Should we perhaps even say it was becoming fashionable, and to what extent did this fashion first depend on the availability of financial support sought in a “scientific” rather than a “humanistic” jargon?) In more recent years, the early village and incipient range of materials have also begun to be encountered, in understand­ably restricted exposures, in the floodpool salvage regions, especially along the Euphrates, and in the Hamrin region in Iraq.

I shall not try to approach that sticky wicket of the more recent attempts to explain just how and why food production and an ef­fective village-farming community way of life actually came into being. Our feelings are that there is still far too little evidence, especially east of the Euphrates, representing the range of development we ourselves choose to call incipience (others may, if they wish, of course call it “epipaleolithic” or “mesolithic”). With every rough allowance for what recalibration radiocarbon age assays may eventually allow, perhaps the time range involved for the sub-era of incipience may have been ca. 20,000 to 8,000 B.C. Perhaps more of the now so-called marginal regions may have been involved than we first had reason to believe. The primary level or sub-era of the effective village farming community followed, over the next two thousand years, ca. 8,000 to 6,000 B.C.

Naturally, echos of earlier notions of our own now amuse us. How much can still be left of that “hilly flanks natural habitat zone?” At least it was field companions of our own, Herbert Wright and Willem van Zeist, who established the real Zagros vegetational history. Inci­dentally, may I recommend a look at Wright’s and Charles Reed’s chapters in the volume Prehistoric Archeology Along the Zagros Flanks (1983). Our 1963 Tauros hill flanks survey was either too incomplete or too high (we suspect both) to yield evidence we could understand as of the incipient range. Given the now available suggestions from the sal­vage exposures along the middle Euphrates, both in Syria and Turkey (as Gil Stein reports on here), we would love to inspect the final Tauros piedmont, with its numerous spring heads, east and west of Mardin. This was a restricted mili­tary zone during our 1963 survey, and we understand that it still is so. Indeed, thinking such thoughts, Linda and I could well wish for another score or so of field years, if only that part of the world were more tranquil.

I have already called attention, elsewhere, to how Charles Reed ends his twenty “capsulated con­clusions” to the massive Origins of Agriculture symposium volume of 1976. His twenty-first conclusion is “Many unsolved problems remain.”

Excavations at Çayönü

Robert Braidwood’s most recent research has been in southeastern Turkey where he is co-director with Halet Cambel of the Joint Prehis­toric Project, sponsored by the Prehistoric Section of Istanbul Uni­versity, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and Karlsruhe University in West Germany. Exca­vations at the early village site of Çayönü have been carried out from 1963 to the present (Fig. 4). This settlement was occupied from ca. 7250 to 6700 B.C. by people who raised domesticated plants such as wheat, peas, and lentils. With the exception of the dog, however, they did not raise domesticated animals until late in the site’s history, and their meat came from the hunting of wild animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs.

The area of the site is estimated at six to seven acres, of which ca. 10 percent has been exposed through excavation. The architectural re­mains consist primarily of residen­tial buildings (Fig. 5), but three communal structures have also been identified (Figs. 6, 8). Although the people of Çayönü had not yet adopted the use of pottery, they produced tools made of flint and obsidian (a volcanic glass). Most surprising was the use of copper, presumably obtained from the near­by source at Ergani-Maden. The metal was shaped by heating and pounding to make pins, hooks, reamers, and beads. Analysis of these artifacts has been undertaken by Dr. Tamara Stech of MASCA. M.M.V.

Cite This Article

Braidwood, Robert J.. "The Origin and Growth of a Research Focus— Agricultural Beginnings." Expedition Magazine 28, no. 2 (July, 1986): -. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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