Lost and Found: Excavating the world’s first farmers

By Professor Roger Matthews and Dr Wendy Matthews

Bestansur site in Iraq

The transition of humankind from mobile hunters to settled farmers after the Ice Age is a period in history still shrouded in mystery. Very little evidence exists to shed light on what life was like in the world’s first villages in the Middle East 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

But our archaeological research, carried out in collaboration with local communities in Iraq and Iran, is uncovering clues that will help us understand how ancient civilisations developed. We will be presenting our findings at a public lecture on Wednesday 22 November, as part of the national Being Human Festival.

Earlier this year, we conducted excavations and interdisciplinary research at the Neolithic site of Bestansur, in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is in the eastern Fertile Crescent – one of the areas of the Middle East where farming originated. Our aim is to learn more about how humans first started farming in this region, taking steps towards a more domesticated lifestyle.

We made some significant finds during this excavation. Buried at Bestansur were sea shells and exotic materials from Turkey and Iran, which showed that people across the Middle East were sharing ideas and trading resources across more than 1,500km. Other evidence shows the people of Bestansur were eating wild and tamed animals such as goats and pigs, land snails, fish and cereal and pulse crops grown nearby.

These findings confirm theories that multiple regions, not a single centre, were contributing to the innovations in knowledge and skills needed for communities to live in one place and cultivate plants and animals for the first time.

Remarkably, we also uncovered dozens of human remains under the floor of a building. As well as providing an insight into the cultural practices of this community, the remains give us valuable information about their way of life and health. DNA analysis will show us how closely related the people of Bestansur were, to indicate how mobile or settled the community was at this time. Stable isotope analysis will also help us to understand their diet.

Our ambition is to have Bestansur placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which would offer the site more protection and allow its history to be shared with local, national and international visitors.

This follows on from our work with RASHID International (Research, Assessment and Safeguarding the Heritage of Iraq in Danger), in which we oversee work to protect heritage sites that are endangered by conflict and other threats.

There are very few UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Middle East as a whole, so recognition of Bestansur would be significant for Iraq and the region.

The Bestansur site is already on the World Heritage Tentative List (http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/6172/), and over the next few years, work led by the Iraqi government will gather further evidence to support its nomination and hopefully secure Bestansur’s position formally as a World Heritage site.

Book a place at the Being Human Festival public lecture, ‘Excavating the World’s First Farmers in Iraq and Iran’, here: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/about-event-register.aspx

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