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Archaeological Evidence on the Westward Expansion of Farming Communities from Eastern Anatolia to the Aegean and the Balkans


The beginnings of the Neolithic way of life in Europe and the role played by the Anatolian Peninsula in this process are much-debated issues that involve a number of distinct topics. In this debate, it should not be overlooked that distinct from Europe, at least a portion of the Anatolian plateau had been part of the “Neolithic world” for at least 4,000 years before the appearance of the earliest claimed Neolithic culture in Europe. Accordingly, in viewing the interaction between southeastern Europe and the Aegean with the Anatolian Peninsula, the core area of primary Neolithization has to be considered.

The Neolithic way of life, after stabilizing in the region of its origin for several millennia, was rather suddenly dispersed to other regions by the beginning of the seventh millennium BC. The mode and the pace of this expansion have been much debated. The problem has been unresolved because of the lack of research in the peripheral areas of primary Neolithization and in particular in the contact zone between Anatolia and southeastern Europe. During the last 2 decades, there have been a number of new excavations in this critical zone that for the first time have provided concrete evidence regarding the expansion of the Neolithic way of life. Until recently, the Neolithic period of western Anatolia was known, aside from excavations such as at Hacılar, largely from sherds collected from the surface. Thus, all comparisons between Anatolia and the Balkans had to have their focus on stylistic features of the pottery assemblage. Now, though data collection is still in a preliminary stage, there is a wide range of available data covering settlement organizations, architectural features, subsistence patterns, lithic technologies, and burial customs. Many of these sites are still being excavated, and thus, the results are available mainly in the form of preliminary reports. However, even a preliminary assessment of what has been published is enough to give insight into a newly appearing picture. A brief survey of recent literature indicates that these new data have been either overlooked (Anthony and Chi 2010) or considered in the view of conventional hypothetical frameworks, which has led to a rather chaotic admixture of conventional models with a random selection of new data. It is necessary to begin with a conspectus questioning the history of the problem.

Preamble: A Prelude to the Problem

The question of how farming began in Europe has been much debated since the first half of the last century (Tringham 1971). Because the question pertains to both understanding the foundations of European civilization in addition and scientific concerns, it has been a stimulus to politics as well (Özdoğan 2004, 2007a). It seemed evident in the early years of research that the area key to the resolution of this problem was southeastern Europe—the Aegean and the Balkans. As can be seen in Rowley-Conwy (2011), defining the process of Neolithization in western parts of Europe is less problematic, because there the discussions are based solely on solid evidence. In the southeastern parts of Europe, however, archaeological biases bear not only on political concerns but even the origin of agriculture. Accordingly, before presenting the recent evidence from western Turkey, for the sake of clarity it is necessary to include an overview of changing trends pertaining to the origin of Early Neolithic cultures.

There has been so much controversy regarding the beginning of the Neolithic way of life in southeastern Europe that the question has occasionally been distorted. In the midst of ongoing discussions, it is worth keeping in mind that the initial concern is to understand how and when the Neolithic way of life began in southeastern Europe. The quest to answer these questions has followed two distinct trajectories, considering Neolithization either as the result of a local development or as being introduced from the East. Uncompromising confrontation between these two approaches remains an enduring dilemma. Nevertheless, it is now evident that the emergence of the Neolithic way of life in southeastern Europe was very complex and did not develop along a single line but from different types of simultaneous occurrences.

As noted, the resolution of Neolithic origins in southeastern Europe is embedded in the Neolithic culture’s interaction with the Near East, where an uneven distribution of excavated sites due to research strategies has been the primary agent to hamper reaching a consensus. The excitement triggered by the transformation of the meaning of the term “Neolithic” from technology to imply a new way of living based on food production had a significant impact in designing field projects, both in the Near East and in southeastern Europe, considerably increasing the number of Neolithic excavations. In the initial stages, Neolithic research was focused mainly on two geographic regions, one in the semiarid regions of the Near East, mainly along the so-called Fertile Crescent, and the other in southeastern Europe. The former was considered to be the core area or the main formative zone of sedentary farming communities, and the latter was considered to be where the European Neolithic originated.

The geographic locations of the research projects in the Near East were selected based on the following considerations: (a) regions where environmental restrictions would necessitate consuming cereals; (b) zones of the natural habitat of the primary components of the Neolithic package, mainly the regions where wild cereals and wild forms of domestic animals were present; and (c) areas where the political context did not hamper archaeological research. Given such considerations, research on the Neolithic Period was concentrated in the Levant and, to a lesser degree, along the eastern arm of the Fertile Crescent. The work in the Near East was research oriented, focused on understanding various aspects of the Neolithic process. In southeastern Europe, however, excavating a Neolithic site was considered somewhat more prestigious then working on other periods. By the second half of the twentieth century, the number of excavated Neolithic sites in southeastern Europe had reached 200. By the third quarter of the twentieth century, there had been considerable knowledge accumulated on both ends of the Anatolian Peninsula, which until then had been largely outside the sphere of interest of Neolithic research. On a general level, Anatolia was discussed mainly as the connection between the Near Eastern Neolithic cultures and the Balkans, but even in this context, the question was whether Anatolia was a barrier or a cultural bridge (French 1986; Tringham 2000).

In this respect, it should not be forgotten that before the implementation of 14C dating, the beginning of the Neolithic Period in southeastern Europe, including that of mainland Greece, was believed to be rather late, sometime around 3400 to 3200 BC. At the same time, it seemed evident that the Neolithic communities of southeastern Europe had been derived from the Near East. As the presence of Neolithic cultures in Anatolia was beyond consideration, various models were envisaged to connect littoral areas of the eastern Mediterranean with the Balkans—bypassing Anatolia. In this context, Childe noted in 1957 that “no recognizable archaeological milestones mark an ancient route across Anatolia from the Orient to Europe” (Childe 1964 [1957]:36) and “Sakçegözü (Coba Höyük) further north seem[s] to prove that Mesopotamian farmers with slings and gaily painted pots colonized the Orontes valley; indeed they penetrated right to the Mediterranean coasts at least at Ugarit (Ras Shamra)” (Childe 1964 [1957]:217). Some years later, Seton Lloyd also commented that “the region more correctly described as Anatolia shows no sign whatever of habitation during the Neolithic period” (Lloyd 1956:53–54) and “various phases were later found, first in north Syria and then at Taurus and Mersin beyond the Turkish frontier … testifying to the westward and northward extension of the great Chalcolithic province … barrier still existed and beyond it Anatolia remained unpopulated” (Lloyd 1956:58–61).

While culture historians were trying to define routes between the Levant and the Aegean, others working in southeastern Europe were more engaged in searching for parallels with the Neolithic sequence of the Near East. In this respect, one of the active discussions of the time was the one triggered by V. Milojčić, a prominent archaeologist on the prehistory of the Balkans who argued for the presence of an “Aceramic Neolithic” horizon in Thessaly (Milojčić 1960) that was almost identical to the cultural stage that had just been identified in the Near East. Needless to say, this was a highly paradoxical model, because Milojčić believed in both the Near Eastern origins of the Balkan Neolithic and the very young dates ascribed to it. Nevertheless, given the dates for the Balkan and the Anatolian cultures, numerous parallels were put forth between these two regions, the most notable being the association of Troy I with the Vinča culture. As narratives of changing perceptions regarding the Neolithization model of Europe have been published extensively (Bogucki 1996; Özdoğan 1995; Renfrew 2002; Sherratt 2004), here I shall note only a few relevant stages.

The implementation of 14C dating, in particular for the early cultures of southeastern Europe, led to the creation of a “mental fault line” between the early Balkan and Anatolian cultures. The 14C revolution came at a time when numerous Neolithic sites were being excavated in southeastern Europe, revealing that the Balkan cultures were 2,000 to 3,000 years older than assumed. While the cultural sequence in the Balkans was going through revolutionary changes, almost no prehistoric excavations were taking place on the Anatolian plateau, and the conventional dates established before the 14C revolution, particularly from sites such as Alişar with a long sequence, were not questioned for decades (Mellaart 1960; Özdoğan 1996). The discrepancy among the dates of the early cultures of these regions, now spanning almost 3,000 years, coupled with the uneven geographic distribution of excavations, eliminated Anatolia as the source area of Balkan cultures. This, along with contemporary political concerns, led to a new way of thinking based on disregarding endemic movements between regions, conveniently known as the “antidiffusionist” approach. Through some decades, the discussion of the origin of the European Neolithic developed along this line. It was hypothesized that there was an autochthonous development in the Balkans devoid of any impact from the East. Thus, the concept of a “source area” for the European Neolithic cultures became firmly attached to the Balkans. Mention of possible diffusion from the East was considered an embarrassment. Concerning this interim stage, the question of how staple crops such as wheat, which do not have wild ancestors in southeastern Europe, appeared in the early Neolithic sites remained a subject of unresolved debate. In spite of the prevailing tendencies, a few scholars continued to consider the Eastern origins of European civilization. Among them, Garaşanin, with her “Balkano-Anatolian cultural complex” (Garaşanin 1981, 1997), and Theocharis, insistent on Anatolia as the source of the Aegean Neolithic (Theocharis 1973), need to be acknowledged.

The recovery of early sites—Hacılar first, followed by Çatalhöyük, Can Hasan, Süberde, and Erbaba on the Anatolian plateau—initiated a number of discussions questioning both the place of Anatolia in the process of Neolithic formation in the Near East and its role as the source of the European Neolithic. In this debate the insight and intuition of James Mellaart (1975) and David French (1986) stand as landmarks in noting the significant importance of the Anatolian Peninsula in the process of Neolithization at such an early date and with such little evidence. In this respect, Fritz Schachermeyr should also be acknowledged as one of the few scholars of his time to perceive the connections between Aegean, Anatolian, and Near Eastern assemblages (Schachermeyr 1976). However, it is interesting to note that in spite of the flamboyant finds from Çatalhöyük and elsewhere, Anatolia for a long time was still not included in theoretical discussions of the emergence of Neolithic cultures.

As new excavations commenced in Anatolia, the antidiffusionist views went through a gradual stage of transformation (Harris 2003; Özdoğan 1995, 2007b; Runnels 2003). In this respect, excavations at Çatalhöyük and Hacılar caused considerable excitement with their colorful artifactual finds; however, the main impetus in bringing Anatolia into the theoretical framework of the Neolithic studies was the data on the natural environment provided by the natural scientists taking part in the Cayönü excavations. Nevertheless, until the commencement of excavations at Nevali Çori, Hallan Çemi, and Asikli, the conventional view of disregarding Anatolia from the primary zone of neolithization endured. At first the presence of early Neolithic settlements on the plateau was taken as a late reflection of the Levantine Neolithic, connoted as an “area of secondary Neolithization.” Later still, Anatolia began once more to be considered as the source area of European Neolithic cultures. It is of interest to note that arguments based on ethnolinguistic and/or biogenetic studies were more instrumental than conventional comparisons based on artifact assemblages in silencing antidiffusionistic approaches (Renfrew 2002).

During the last decade or so, the picture has almost completely changed; what we now see is a revival of the old Balkano-Anatolian cultural complex based on more concrete evidence. All of the previous explanations, whether diffusionist or antidiffusionist, are now regarded as overly simplistic. Even if there are still considerable lacunae in our knowledge, it is evident that the real picture was far more complex than ever envisaged.

Defining the Problem

The Neolithic of southeastern Europe has been rather well studied through hundreds of excavations evenly distributed in the Balkans and in the Aegean. Even though considerable amounts of data have been accumulated—in addition to biases that are deeply rooted in the history of research, as noted above—the development of a clear vision of the Neolithization process has also been obscured by working with misconceived definitions. Among them, overlooking the difference between the appearance of the “Neolithic way of life” and “Neolithic elements” has considerably obstructed answering the question “how” Neolithic dispersal happened. A Neolithic way of life implies a village life with all of its social network and regulations; it can hardly be imitated unless the settlers were village dwellers previously. On the other hand, commodities can travel and technologies can be learned. In this respect, for example, Neolithic culture appears in the Balkans or in Cyprus as a way of living in villages, regardless of their size. However, farther to the west, in the Mediterranean littoral where certain commodities or technologies occur, there is hardly any evidence of village life in the sense of Anatolia or the Balkans.

The next question to be asked is “when”; the answer, in spite of all the available 14C dates, is still far from being resolved. The main bias of this line of thought is considering the Neolithization of southeastern Europe as an instantaneous event. We now realize that it was an extended process that took place in installments and that lasted for more than a thousand years. Compressing the events that had such a long history into one arbitrary horizon has seriously jeopardized any ability to make sense out of the absolute dates.

One other obstacle that deserves to be noted here is the “conceptual” border between the East and the West (Özdoğan 2007a). Archaeology as a science, in Anatolia and in the Balkans, has developed in different directions. Different and at the same time opposing political regimes in these regions have created a barrier to sharing knowledge. For decades, scholarly contacts and the flow of data between Anatolia and southeastern Europe was minimal if any did pass through. Moreover, these regions have developed distinct schools of social science. Anatolian archaeology has traditionally been Mesopotamia centric, almost totally uninterested in Europe, including the Turkish part of Thrace. On the other hand, most of the archaeology in southeastern Europe concentrated on a local scale. Thus, even simple concepts such as the definition of culture or of a site differed considerably between these regions. This, coupled with the problems of following the outcomes of recent archaeological work in the other region, made any reasonable dialogue almost impossible between Anatolia and southeastern Europe.

Constraints on drawing a comprehensive picture between the Neolithic cultures of Near East Anatolia and southeastern Europe Aegean are not limited to what I have noted above. If paucity of Neolithic research is the prime obstacle in Anatolia, the picture in the Balkans is blurred by an abundance of data in which the information either remains as a chaotic bulk or is of questionable context. It is rather regrettable that a great number of excavations in southeastern Europe have been conducted as small soundings with no clearly defined stratigraphy or architectural features. Even with extensive excavations, publication of the data has been extremely selective and not always presented in an objective manner. Likewise, the bulk of 14C dates are from unclear contexts or processed in unreliable labs. However, in spite of all these obstacles, with an unbiased approach, the recent evidence provides grounds to develop a new perspective and allows reformulation of questions. It is too early to draw a conclusive picture, but at least now with the new information pouring in from the western parts of Turkey, it is possible to redefine the problem and to ask proper questions. Accordingly, the following are essential questions that need to be asked before any general statements on how and when the Neolithic way of life began in southeastern Europe can be made.

Defining the Western Border of the Primary Zone of Neolithization

The area of primary Neolithization, or the core area of Neolithic formation, which long was considered to be restricted to the regions in and around the Fertile Crescent, is now firmly extended to cover southeastern sections of the central Anatolian basin. Along with the excavations at Pınarbaşı, Aşıklı Höyük, and Kaletepe (Özdoğan and Başgelen 2007), a number of surveys conducted in the southeastern section of inner Anatolia have pushed its beginning to considerably earlier dates, implying that here the process of Neolithization was more or less parallel to that of the Fertile Crescent (fig. 1). Even though it is not possible to define the western and northern boundaries of the primary Neolithic formation zone, it is clear that it did not extend too much in western and northern directions. What was there in those times is far from clear; even in the most intensively surveyed areas, material indicative of the presence of a Mesolithic/Epipaleolithic horizon, as is the case in Greece and southern Bulgaria, is restricted to the coastal areas, suggesting that the inner parts might be devoid of population (Özdoğan 2005, 2008). As revealed by excavated coastal sites such as Öküzini or Franchthi, the Mesolithic assemblages bear no indication of contact with the contemporary Neolithic cultures nor any element that could be taken as a forerunner of the Neolithic cultures that appeared later in those areas. This strongly implies that up to a certain period, Neolithic cultures remained within the formation zone without expanding their area.

Figure 1. 
Figure 1. 

Core area of Neolithic formation and sites mentioned in the text. 1, Franchti; 2, Sesklo; 3, Argitsa-Magula; 4, Krainitsi; 5, Lepenski Vir; 6, Vlassac; 7, Gradesnitsa; 8, Koprivets; 9, Karanovo; 10, Aşağı Pınar; 11, Hoca Çeşme; 12, Uğurlu-Zeytinlik; 13, Yarımburgaz; 14, Yenikapı; 15, Fikirtepe; 16, Pendik; 17, Ilıpınar; 18, Menteşe; 19, Barçın; 20, Demirci Höyük; 21, Keçiçayırı; 22, Aktopraklık; 23, Troya; 24, Ege Gübre; 25, Ulucak; 26, Yeşilova; 27, Çukuriçi Höyük; 28, Çine-Tepecik; 29, Peynirçiçeği; 30, Öküzini; 31, Bademağacı; 32, Höyücek; 33, Kuruçay; 34, Hacılar; 35, Süberde; 36, Erbaba; 37, Çatalhöyük; 38, Can Hasan; 39, Aşıklı; 40, Gelveri; 41, Kaletepe; 42, Tepecik-Çiftlik; 43, Köşk Höyük; 44, Yumuktepe. Gray shading indicates the primary zone of Neolithization, that is, the core area of the Neolithic.

Defining the Contact Zone

This is an issue that until recently has been largely overlooked. Most of the literature dealing with the Neolithization process in Europe has focused either on the northern and western sections of the Balkan peninsula or central Europe, where there existed a strong Mesolithic/Epipaleolithic substratum (Bogucki 1996; Pinhasi 2003; Zvelebil and Lillie 2000). What happened in these areas with the advent of Neolithic cultures is apt to be different from regions that were either devoid of habitation or very sparsely inhabited, such as the western parts of Anatolia, mainland Greece, and southern Bulgaria (Gatsov and Özdoğan 1994; Özdoğan 2007b, 2008). Evidently, western parts of the Anatolian Peninsula, the immediate periphery of the primary zone of Neolithization, formed the main “contact zone” during the initial stage of expansion. Later, after the Neolithic reached southeastern Europe, this became a new core area for the expanding zones. Components of initial expansion, whether an endemic movement or the movement of ideas and commodities, can clearly be observed only in this region not only because of its immediate proximity to the core area but also because there is no need to sort out the impact of local assemblages, as is the case in much of Europe.

Defining “Neolithic Packages” and Trajectories

For a long time the concept of the “Neolithic package” was limited to cultivated plants, domesticated animals, groundstone artifacts, and pottery, and it ignored not only other elements such as prestige or cult objects but also more specifically architecture, the arrangement of settlements, and the way of life. It now seems evident that there were different types of Neolithic packages—though almost all contained cultivated plants, domesticated animals, groundstone artifacts, and pottery—that reflect different social structures and ways of living. Thus, to define patterns, it is necessary to make a more detailed analysis of the assemblages and to work out trajectories of Neolithic expansion (Özdoğan 2010).

The Evidence

Regretfully, there is very little new data from Greece and from the Balkans in the last 2 decades on the initial stages of the Neolithic period. There are numerous publications, though each with a distinct view on the Aegean (Runnels 2001), Greece (Perlès 2001), and Bulgaria (Nikolov 2003, 2004; Nikolov, Bacvarov, and Kalchev 2004; Todorova 1995). On the other hand, there is now an unprecedented inflow of new information from the western and northwestern parts of Turkey (fig. 1). The geographic distribution and the status of research of sites relevant to the subject matter of this article are listed below as a gazetteer. The primary information on these sites, with extensive illustrations and references, are to be found in Özdoğan and Başgelen (2007). Here I note only the most recent publications.

Eastern Thrace

Hoca Çeşme: small mound (Bertram and Karul 2005); Aşağı Pınar: mound, excavations continuing (Karul et al. 2003); Yarımburgaz Cave and İstanbul Yenikapı: submerged site and necropolis excavations continuing (Kızıltan 2007); İstanbul Çekmece survey (Aydıngün 2009).

Eastern and Southern Marmara

Fikirtepe: flat site; Pendik: flat site and necropolis; Ilıpınar: mound and necropolis (Roodenberg and Alpaslan-Roodenberg 2008); Menteşe: mound; Barçın: small mound, excavations continuing (Roodenberg, van As, and Alpaslan-Roodenberg 2008); Aktopraklık: mound and necropolis, excavations continuing.

Coastal Aegean

Ulucak: mound, excavations continuing (Abay 2005; Çilingiroğlu and Abay 2005); Yeşilova: mound, excavations continuing; Ege Gübre: mound, excavations continuing; Çukuriçi Höyük: mound, excavations continuing (Horejs 2008); Çine-Tepecik: mound, excavations continuing (Günel 2003); Beşparmak Latmos: cave site, excavations continuing (Peschlow-Bindokat 2003); Uğurlu-Zeytinlik: small mound, excavations continuing (Harmankaya and Erdoğu 2003); Coşkuntepe: small mound, excavations continuing (Seeher 1990; Takaoğlu 2005).

Coastal Mediterranean

Peynirçiçeği: cave site, excavations continuing (S. Yaylalı, unpublished manuscript, 2007); Suluin: cave site, excavations continuing (Taşkıran 2008).

Inner West Anatolia

Kuruçay: mound; Höyücek: mound (Duru 2008); Bademağacı: mound, excavations continuing (Duru 2008); Keçiçayırı: flat hilltop site, excavations continuing (Efe 2005); Demirci Höyük: mound; Dedecik-Heybelitepe: small mound, excavations continuing.

As the above list documents, over the last 2 decades a total of 26 Neolithic sites have been excavated in the western parts of Turkey. Thirteen of these are currently being excavated. The increased number of excavated sites is certainly of significance; however, what is more important is the fact that most of these sites are multilayered mounds with Neolithic deposits 4–8 m thick, and they are being extensively excavated; most of the excavations are conducted by competent multidisciplinary teams. Along with the increase in the number of excavations, there are now numerous surface surveys in various parts of the region providing not only new evidence but also making it possible to define distribution patterns. Here I will restrict myself to presenting a conspectus on certain selected issues that contribute to developing a new insight on the dispersal of a Neolithic way of life.

A Dilemma: The Aceramic Horizon

The beginnings of a Neolithic way of life in the western parts of Anatolia, as in the Balkans, are far from clear; the evidence for this incipient stage is very scanty and at the same time open to controversy. At the root of this problem lies the question of whether a Pre-Pottery or Aceramic Neolithic phase was present. Even though the question had its origins in parallels with the Near East, it is deeply embedded in Milojčić’s claims for an Aceramic horizon in Thessaly (Milojčić 1960). Similar claims were later put forward for Lepenski Vir and Vlassac in the Iron Gates of the Danube. However, for each of these cases there have been others claiming that neither of these sites were Aceramic and that some pottery was always present, including whole pots in photographs from Lepenski Vir (Garaşanin and Radovanoviç 2001; Reingruber 2005). A similar case can be seen at Hacılar in western Anatolia. Mellaart claimed to find an Aceramic mound below the alluvial plain on the outskirts of the pottery mound of Hacılar (Mellaart 1970:3–7). Much later at Çatalhöyük, Mellaart noted that an Aceramic layer was recovered at the bottom of the deep sounding (Mellaart 1989:316). Duru (1989), reexcavating Mellaart’s Aceramic mound at Hacılar, found some coarse sherds in situ, and at Çatalhöyük the presence of a Pre-Pottery horizon has not been confirmed, although pottery is reported to be extremely rare both at basal Hacılar and in the deep layers of Çatalhöyük. A similar claim has been made at Ulucak following the 2009 season, reaching a Pre-Pottery level, phase VI, with red-coated floors and walls (Çevik 2010); the available dates of the overlaying phase are as early as the end of the eighth millennium BC.

There have been other suggestions regarding the presence of Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites in various surveys conducted in western Anatolia, including Keçiçayırı, located on the Phrygian highlands in the eastern part (Efe 1997, 2005), and Çalca (Özdoğan and Gatsov 1998), based on lithic typology, but some pottery is also present at both sites. For the other claims for Pre-Pottery sites, mainly from the littoral areas of both Turkey and Greece, there is so little lithic material available that it is not possible to say with any confidence whether they represent a Mesolithic or a younger horizon.

Even though the evidence does not support the existence of an Aceramic horizon in the regions west of the central Anatolian basin, it still should not be excluded as a possibility. As noted above, pottery is extremely rare in the basal layers of all known early Neolithic sites, including those such as Çatalhöyük and Bademağacı, which contain a long sequence of development. The fact that the earliest horizons with pottery have dates as early as the eighth millennium implies that the first detectable expansion of the Neolithic culture took place either at the beginning of the Pottery Neolithic period, when pottery vessels were rare, or just before it, more or less between 7400 and 7100 cal BC. Nevertheless, it would not be at all surprising if there were some sporadic movements to the west at a slightly earlier date.

Multiple Trajectories and Maritime Expansion

The second controversy involves the route of this initial dispersal. Given the recent information from the Anatolian plateau, we have always considered a land route rather than the maritime route suggested by Childe in earlier years. Recently, however, Perlès (2003, 2005), after analysis of early Neolithic assemblages in Greece, suggested that there are some elements in the Aegean that seems to have arrived directly from the eastern Mediterranean, bypassing Anatolia. The recovery of Early Neolithic sites in Cyprus and in some of the Aegean islands (Sampson 2005; Vigne et al. 2011) strongly supports the interpretation of Perlès. In this discussion, the recent excavations at Ege Gübre in İzmir, located on the coastal plain adjacent to the Aegean, presents an interesting case. The earliest Neolithic occupation, with dates around 6250 cal BC, in addition to typical central Anatolian elements has round stone buildings and quantities of impresso pottery that are alien to inland Anatolian assemblages. Likewise, the basal layers of Hoca Çeşme, dated to 7637 BP (Bln 4639; i.e., roughly to 6400 cal BC), is also located on the coastal plain by the Aegean. This layer contains both monochrome pottery almost identical to that from central Anatolia and round architecture not found in central Turkey. A naviform core and related blades were recovered in 2007 in a surface survey conducted along the northern coast of the Sea of Marmara (Aydıngün 2009). The total absence of these cores—so common in the Levant—anywhere in the Anatolian plateau also seems to support long-distance maritime connections in the Neolithic.

Discussion of what parts of the Neolithic package came west by which route is a rather tricky issue, full of traps, particularly if the discussion is based on single items that are uncommon in an assemblage. Accordingly, here again the general picture should be more helpful in developing insight even though there will always be some contradictions because of the presence or absence of certain diagnostic elements. Here at least it is certain that the sea was intensively used since the earliest stages of Neolithization, as evidenced by the presence of early sites in Cyprus and now also in Crete by the inflow of central Anatolian obsidian (Şevketoğlu 2008) and the early distribution of Melos obsidian. Accordingly, it is no surprise that there was considerable interaction between the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean along a coastal maritime route (van Andel 2005). In this respect, round-plan buildings, as best known from Cypriot sites, and the so-called impresso pottery stand as clear indicators of a maritime package, and both are conspicuously lacking at inland sites. Thus, it seems possible to surmise that both the land route over the Anatolian plateau and the maritime route following the Anatolian coasts were operating simultaneously and that coastal sites along the Aegean incorporated a mixture of both assemblages. The geographic location of some sites such as Keçiçayırı or Çalca on high plateaus suggests that some early Neolithic groups were following the plateaus or mountains and not the alluvial plains as conventionally considered. At our current level of knowledge, it is not possible to define the trajectories of endemic movements with any precision; however, patterning the distribution of Neolithic elements indicates that there was more than one movement, each following a different route.

The First Congregate Movement of Neolithic Communities

Following what I have described as the initial stage of expansion, there is a succession of rapid and rather massive movements of the Neolithic way of life extending to temperate Europe. Now it is evident that this process, at least in the western parts of Turkey and in the adjacent areas of the Balkans, was not an instantaneous happening. There are at least two definable stages bringing with them different assemblages and following different trajectories. What is being normally referred to in the literature as the Early Neolithic occupation of Europe is related to the second stage. Consideration of these two distinct movements as a single process has been the source of considerable bias in assessments of the beginning of the Neolithic in Europe. Here I consider them under different headings.

As noted above, the evidence for the initial expansion of the Neolithic communities, whether by land or by sea, seems to be rather sparse and sporadic. This first stage appears to have continued up to the second half of the seventh millennium, around 6500–6400 BC, just to the time of Çatalhöyük layer 6.

Immediately afterward, there are the first indications of a more substantial expansion indicated by the numerous sites in the lakes district and in the inner parts of western Anatolia. What triggered this movement is beyond the scope of this article, although some sort of a social turbulence in the main core area (Özdoğan 1997, 2005) coupled with the unstable environmental conditions seemingly related to the 8.2 kyr BP climatic event (Alley and Ágústsdóttir 2005; Berger and Guilaine 2008; Roberts and Rosen 2009) seem to be the main agencies in this movement. In parts of Anatolia in close proximity to the central Anatolian basin, this era is much better documented than in the coastal regions of the Aegean, although current work in the earlier levels of the sites such as Çukuriçi Höyük, Ulucak, and Yeşilova are now yielding ample evidence of the presence of this second stage in the littoral areas of the Aegean.

This horizon is best represented by monochrome pottery with well-finished and burnished surfaces very much akin to the so-called dark-faced burnished wares of the Near East. Similarly, the vessel forms range from variations of hole-mouth jars to semiglobular cups, some having ledge or crescent lugs, with small knobs not being uncommon. Decoration is rather rare; very seldom are there vessels with red bands, incised patterns, or relief bands. Even though most of the pottery is dark brown, reddish brown, or black, occasionally there are also pieces with a fine burnished whitish or light creamy slip. The Anatolian origin of this pottery is indisputable. It is possible to find analogous material from a large geographic zone extending from southeastern Anatolia to the Central Plateau. The assemblage, besides pottery, is rather limited; the chipped stone industry is characterized by the extensive presence of pressure flaking, microbladelets, prismatic and/or bullet cores, round scrapers, backed bladelets, and chipped discs. Bone polishers, spoons, and hooks are among the few definable prestige objects. Architectural details as well as the layout and the organization of the settlements also reflect what is known from farther east in Anatolia. Subsistence, unlike most early Neolithic areas in central and eastern Anatolia, was mainly dependant on farming, with little evidence of hunting. Sheep and goat were more common then cattle.

Comparing the assemblages from both regions, it is evident that every component found in the newly settled areas has a counterpart in the primary zone of Neolithization, though in varying degrees of intensity. However, there is much that remained in the core area that did not move along with the expansion, indicating some sort of a selection. Resorting the assemblage indicates that only certain categories in the original package were carried by the farmers, and these were mainly the utilitarian components of the culture (Özdoğan 2010). The expansion model includes all variations of domesticated animals and cultivated plants—not only cereals but in particular legumes and lentils—groundstone artifacts including celts and building techniques but without most of the cult and prestige objects. This strongly implies that the groups that were on the move did not include the ruling elite or the clergy, and it was more as a segregated movement of simple farmers or herdsman (Özdoğan 2008). Going into detailed analyses of the sites, the picture is far more complex than what I have presented here as a generalization; some components such as painted lime floors, reminiscent of the terrazzo technique (Hauptmann and Yalçın 2000) of the east, occur in some sites, mainly at Bademağacı and Hoca Çeşme, seemingly as “social memory.” On the other hand, during this stage some specific tools that require special craftsmanship, such as flint arrow points, disappear in both regions, suggesting that the skilled craftsman had also joined moving groups (Özdoğan 2002). All of a sudden, with the disappearance of arrow points, clay sling missiles become a major component of the assemblage in both regions.

This stage is best documented in northwestern Turkey, mainly along the southern and eastern parts of the Marmara region, as the Archaic and Classic phases (Özdoğan 1997, 2005) of the Fikirtepe culture. This cultural stage is known from over 25 sites. Ilıpınar (Roodenberg, van As, and Alpaslan-Roodenberg 2008) and Aktopraklık (Karul 2007) have securely solved the chronological position of the Fikirtepe culture, placing it between 6450 and 6100 cal BC.

As the details of the Fikirtepe culture and its development have been extensively published (Özdoğan 1997; Özdoğan and Başgelen 2007), these will not be repeated here. However, the differences between the inland and coastal sites of this culture are important for this discussion. As noted above, there is an extensive presence of Mesolithic or Epipaleolithic sites in the coastal areas of eastern Marmara and along the Black Sea littoral (Gatsov and Özdoğan 1994). On the other hand, farther inland on the Anatolian plateau, this stage is conspicuously absent. There was always an argument that this might be the result of survey biases. However, the difference in the composition of Fikirtepe assemblages between the areas where a Mesolithic substratum is known and other areas where it is not found strongly implies that the survey results were more or less correct. In both areas, most of the assemblage and in particular the pottery—in ware, shape, decoration, and in sequential development—is identical. On the other hand, those sites located inland, such as Ilıpınar or Menteşe, have rectangular buildings arranged like the Anatolian settlements, while those along the coastal areas have round or oval wattle-and-daub huts with semisunken floors. This latter form is best known from Fikirtepe, Pendik, İstanbul Yenikapı, and Aktopraklık (Özdoğan and Başgelen 2007). Another striking difference between the two areas is seen in burial customs. Inland sites such as Ilıpınar and Aktopraklık have extramural cemeteries (Alpaslan-Roodenberg 2008), while coastal sites such as Pendik and Fikirtepe have intramural burials beneath the floors of the huts. Even more interesting are the recently found cremation burials at Yenikapı in Istanbul (Kızıltan 2010), in the Fikirtepe and Yarımburgaz 4 horizons, a custom completely alien to Early Neolithic Anatolia. Likewise, subsistence at sites such as Ilıpınar is primarily dependent on farming, with almost no evidence of hunting or fishing (Buitenhuis 1995). Fikirtepe, Pendik, and İstanbul Yenikapı display a mixed pattern of hunting, fishing, mollusk collecting, and farming (Boessneck and von der Driesch 1979). Accordingly, it is possible to assume that while inland sites represent an endemic movement, those in the coastal areas merged with indigenous groups without signs of hostility.

How far west in the Balkans these groups penetrated is difficult to say at present. In the western parts of the Marmara region and in eastern Thrace, the presence of this stage is firmly attested at Aşağı Pınar in layer 8, well stratified below a Karanovo I–related level. In our surveys in eastern Thrace, this type of material has been recorded from Kaynarca (Özdoğan 1986) at Gelibolu and Uğurlu-Zeytinlik Mevkii on Gökçeada Island (Harmankaya and Erdoğu 2003), indicating its presence in northwestern Turkey. Farther west, in the Aegean, at least some of the material from Agios Petros (Evstratiou 1985) and from mainland Greece, Pre- and Proto-Sesklo stage, can be considered to be related, though with notable differences. Farther into the Balkans, the picture is much less clear, especially in light of the controversy regarding the so-called Proto-Starčevo and/or Körös cultures. It is not possible to present a brief comment within the spectrum of this article.

In Bulgaria, the presence of an monochrome horizon preceding the Karanovo I painted-pottery horizon has been much argued (Stefanova 1996; Todorova 2003). It seems very likely that the dark-burnished pottery at sites such as Koprivets and Krainitsi represent the rapid but rather thin expansion of the prepainted-pottery stages all the way up to the Danube. The presence of similar dark-burnished pottery found stratified below Karanovo I horizon at Aşağı Pınar supports this view.

This stage of Neolithic expansion, which with some reservation we have been calling the “monochrome phase,” is of critical importance even if it is not as notable as the next phase because it sets the foundation of the Neolithization process in Europe. With the exception of northwestern parts of Turkey, this phase is still poorly understood. We can anticipate that ongoing excavations in the Aegean parts of Turkey will contribute to defining this stage.

Subsistence patterns during this stage are of crucial importance not only for this local region but also for defining the beginning of agriculture and domestication in Europe. Even though natural scientists have been participating in almost every excavation conducted during the last 2 decades, at present only lists of species—plants, animals, fishes, or mollusks—and general overviews are published, with few specific details. What can be noted at this stage is that even the first migrant groups arrived with the full range of domesticated farm animals, cultivated cereals, and legumes. The recent evidence indicating that not only fully domesticated sheep and goat but also cattle and pigs arrived in the Marmara region presents a new problem regarding how these groups were able to move such long distances together with those animals through Anatolia. In this context, the recovery of dairy product remnants in Fikirtepe pottery is challenging expectations (Evershed et al. 2008). The preliminary assessment of Fikirtepe that documents a mode of subsistence seems rather similar to what has been described as a “low-level food production” model (Smith 2001, 2011). In this respect, the extensive presence of various fruits and nuts (mostly almonds and seeds of wild pear) in many of the sites is worth considering, particularly in light of the evidence for planted trees at Yenikapı, suggesting that tree cultivation might have been more important and had an earlier beginning then previously assumed (see also Weiss and Zohary 2011).

The Second and More Rapid Massive Expansion of the Neolithic Way of Life

It is not possible to comment on the intensity of the initial wave of the Neolithic that I described above. It seems to have been mainly oriented toward the eastern parts of the Marmara region, as indicated by the numbers of settlements recorded in that area. Farther to the west, the evidence is more sparse and difficult to trace. The second impulse, on the contrary, is easier to observe because it must have been a more massive and a rapid movement. Questions such as exactly when it began or whether it was an uninterrupted continuum of the earlier wave are difficult to answer. But at the end of the seventh millennium BC, numerous Neolithic settlements, big and small, appeared almost instantly over almost all of western Turkey and in most of the Balkan Peninsula, sharing more or less similar assemblages (fig. 2). Most of the areas now occupied have no trace of earlier occupation; even in previously settled regions, with some exceptions, the site location preferences of the newcomers were different. This new wave is at best characterized by red-slipped and burnished pottery displaying mostly S-curved profiles, tubular lugs, plastic decoration in relief, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic vessels, steatopygic figurines, pintaderas, and so forth (figs. 35). Recent excavations at sites in the eastern parts of central Anatolia, such as Tepecik-Çiftlik and Köşk Höyük (Özdoğan and Başgelen 2007), strongly imply that this assemblage must originate in that region.

Figure 2. 
Figure 2. 

Some components of the Neolithic package. a, b, Bone spoons, Aşağı Pınar; c, pintaderra, Aşağı Pınar; d, e, applied bull motifs on red-slipped ware, Hoca Çeşme; f, M-shaped figurine, Hoca Çeşme; g, h, applied bull motifs on red-slipped ware, Tepecik-Çiftlik.

Figure 3. 
Figure 3. 

Figurines. a, Aşağı Pınar layer 7 partially steatophic figurine; b, Hacılar, Anatolian-type steatophic figurine; c, Aşağı Pınar layer 7 Anatolian-type steatopygic figurine; d, Aşağı Pınar layer 4 flat-bodied figurine.

Figure 4. 
Figure 4. 

Anthropomorphic vessels from eastern Thrace. ac, Aşağı Pınar layer 3; d, Toptepe layer 5.

Figure 5. 
Figure 5. 

Cult vessels. a, Aşağı Pınar layer 6; b, Aşağı Pınar layer 3; c, Fikirtepe.

Even if this wave was much more massive than the earlier one, it is also evident that there was a preference for alluvial valleys and large and well-watered intermountain plains as well as for avoiding high plateaus. The lake district and the alluvial valleys extending from central Anatolia to the Aegean coastline are among the most intensively settled regions, where recent surveys have revealed over a hundred sites of this horizon (Özsait 1991). On the other hand, the eastern sections of the Marmara region, most densely inhabited by the previous group, seems to have remained beyond the reach of this new wave.

Excavations at sites such as Kuruçay, Höyücek, Bademağacı, Ulucak, Yeşilova, and Hoca Çeşme have revealed information on the sequential development of this stage, indicating that painted decoration was extremely rare or even absent at the very beginning. As the issue of painted decoration surfaces in most of the discussions in the Balkans (Nikolov 1987, 2002, 2003; Schubert 1999), it is worth presenting some details. In the older layers of all the sites mentioned above, the pottery assemblage is dominated by very fine lustrously burnished red or jet black vessels. When painted decoration first appears, it is extremely rare and displays thick bands in red that are mostly made not by paint but by using different colored slips. This earlier stage, being rather common along the Aegean coast of Turkey, is either absent in Bulgaria or it has not been reported in the publications. The final stage of painted decoration with a vast range of geometric designs is found all over the Balkans under different cultural denominations such as Karanovo I–II, Kremikovci, Gradesnitsa, Starcevo, and so forth. Nevertheless, differences among these groups are not as significant as suggested in the literature.

During the rapid expansion of red-slipped pottery—with or without painting—in the eastern Marmara, regions previously occupied by the Fikirtepe culture remained outside of this wave. There, all over the eastern Marmara and around the Bosporus, Yarımburgaz 4 culture, possibly developing from the Classical Fikirtepe, became established. Yarımburgaz 4 culture (Özdoğan, Miyake, and Özbaşaran-Dede 1991) still produced pottery in dark colors, although there are some red-slipped wares, but the decoration is either deeply incised or excised, or occasionally it is executed in the so-called furchenstich technique. Yarımburgaz culture seems to continue developing locally into what is known as Yarımburgaz 3, displaying very fine black-burnished pottery with incised spiral and notenkopf-like motifs. Major sites of this culture, besides Yarımburgaz, include Ilıpınar layer 8, Aktopraklık, and İstanbul Yenikapı (fig. 6). The pottery of Yarımburgaz culture, along with some of its other elements, is highly reminiscent of the early Linear cultures in the Danubian area (Özdoğan 1989). Whether these similarities are accidental or imply some genetic relationship remains a controversy. During the rescue excavations carried out in İstanbul Yenikapı in 2008, a number of burials of Yarımburgaz 4 culture were recovered. The presence of a vessel with deeply incised spiral designs in the graves conspicuously points to connections with the Danubian area. As no pottery of Yarımburgaz type has been found either in eastern Thrace or in Bulgaria, any connection with the northern Balkans must have been along the Black Sea coastline through the Danube River valley.

Figure 6. 
Figure 6. 

Black-burnished wares with spiral decoration. a, Aşağı Pınar layer 7; b, Yenikapı Neolithic burial; c, sherds from Gelveri in Central Anatolia.

The border between the red-slipped and painted cultural groups and the Yarımburgaz distribution is more or less clear. In eastern Thrace, Aşağı Pınar is the easternmost excavated site of this culture, and the surveys have revealed some other sites 50 km farther to the east. Because the contemporaneity of Aşağı Pınar and Yarımburgaz is firmly attested by 14C dates, the border must lie immediately to the west of Istanbul, implying that the second wave entered Thrace not through the Bosporus but from the western parts of the Sea of Marmara, probably following the coastal plains along the Aegean.

Concluding Remarks

Recent archaeological evidence from the western parts of Turkey strongly implies that the arrival of a Neolithic way of life was not a single instantaneous event and on the contrary was a multifarious process that lasted for more than 1,000 years. It is now possible to speak of separate waves of Neolithization—each with its own mode, pace, and trajectory—yet some may have taken place simultaneously. With this article I tried to present a conspectus of the recent evidence from the western and northwestern parts of Turkey and its implications for our understanding of the initial stages of Neolithization in southeastern Europe, including the Aegean. One other point needs to be emphasized. In the earlier stages of the Neolithic expansion, the western parts of Turkey were the frontier, developing as a periphery. However, as the Neolithic culture expanded its coverage to southeastern Europe, those parts became the core or the primary zone of the European Neolithic. For that reason, understanding both historical roles is essential to understanding what and how Neolithization developed in Europe.

I could have written this article using same evidence in another way by defining the distinct compositions of different Neolithic packages. Then the picture would have been slightly different. As an example, there are some Neolithic packages that do not include the “way of village life.” Only commodities seem to have been transferred—most probably by some sort of an exchange. There are others where all sorts of status or prestige objects are either absent or present in minimal amounts, possibly indicating that these groups represent simple farmers on the move. It all leads to the conclusion that the latter half of the eighth millennium and lasting up to the sixth millennium witnessed a very dynamic succession of events that cannot be explained by a single model. Throughout the article, I intentionally avoided going into the discussion of absolute chronology; as noted above, with the available dates regularly published by the Central Anatolian Neolithic E-Workshop,1 especially from the Balkans, working out a precise chronology that is not problematic is still not possible (Biagi, Shennan, and Spataro 2005). Thus, I confined extrapolations to a general level.

After an overview of previous discussions on the nature of this expansion, it now seems clear that all arguments, no matter how contradictory, were correct. There was endemic movement, migration, and colonization by both land and sea; there were “frontiers” merging with local communities, expansion by exchange of knowledge and/or commodities, and to a degree, local development. Of the latter, transformation of the mud-brick architecture of the Anatolian plateau to wooden posts or wattle-and-daub structures in the wooded areas of Marmara should be considered as a fine example of adaptation to local environment. Some of the mobile groups were strictly farmers and others had a mixed economy with intensive hunting, but there were others who were highly dependent on marine resources. What is clear is the fact that it was a dynamic era, and there was motivation to move or to migrate that was not common in other periods. What is also clear at this stage is the sustained relationship between the newly settled areas and the original homeland.

I find this continuing connection to be extremely significant in understanding the mode of Neolithic expansion. If it had taken place as a rapid and organized movement, then sooner or later the developments in the new areas would have been different from those of the homeland. On the contrary, from the earliest stage of the Pottery Neolithic up to the so-called Vinča period in the Balkans, there is an apparent parallelism in the primary cultural traits between Anatolia and the Balkans that is defined by Garaşanin as the “Balkano-Anatolian culture complex” (Garaşanin 2000). This implies that moving groups somehow sustained contact to keep track of what was happening in their original homeland, a pattern described as “chain migration” by Anthony (1997:24).

As I have noted, the evidence is still very fragmentary, and the data are very recent and need time to develop. Here I have offered some generalizations, and they should be understood on that level. Every excavated site has various pieces of evidence that do not fit with the general statements in this article. Perhaps the Neolithic era can best be described as a complex mosaic with a strong social motivation to migrate.


My work has been going on in northwestern Turkey since 1980 with the support from Istanbul University research funds, the Department of Antiquities, and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory. My collaboration with Prof. Hermann Parzinger in 1993 has also provided the support of the German Archaeological Institute, Berlin.

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