Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mehmet Somel
He received a Bachelor's degree from METU Department of Biology in 2001. He earned a Master's degree from METU Biotechnology Program in 2003 working with Prof. Dr. Mahinur Akkaya and Prof. Dr. Aykut Kence as his advisors. Between 2004 and 2008, he worked as a Ph.D student at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and received a degree from Leipzig University in 2008. Between 2008 and 2011, he worked at the Computational Biology Joint Institute in Shanghai, China, and as a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley in the USA between 2011 and 2013. Since 2013, he has been working as a faculty at METU Department of Biological Sciences. His work focuses on evolutionary genetics and he mainly uses computational methods.
METU Ancient Team
METU Ancient DNA Laboratory was established under the leadership of Prof. Dr. İnci Togan in 2012 and is located on Modsimmer building. Laboratory studies are now conducted by Dr. Füsun Özer, while computational analyses are performed by Mehmet Somel. Graduate students Ali Akbaba, Ayshin Ghalichi, Dilek Koptekin, Sevgi Korkmaz, Mustafa Özer and Reyhan Yaka take part in in laboratory tests and computational studies.
NEOGENE, the ERC project application submitted by METU Ancient DNA team in 2017, will shed light on the emergence and spread of the Neolithic lifestyle. The work plan was created in close cooperation with biologists, archaeologists and anthropologists. NEOGENE project executed by Mehmet Somel from METU Department of Biological Sciences aims to reveal the contribution of human migration and information exchange as well as the cultural interaction to the spread of settled life and agriculture in Anatolia using DNA analyzes and archaeological data together. The primary goal is to understand the true story of one of the most important milestones in human history. Mehmet Somel tells us about the project:
The fact that people have been growing their own food through agriculture and livestock breeding is a very recent development. People have been farming for the past 10 thousand years, which does not even account for one in twenty of the 250-year history of the modern Homo sapiens. In the past, our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers; although they were not different from us biologically, they were probably very different from us sociologically. These communities did not have any financial savings, and the conditions for the formation of large crowds and cities, privatization and social inequality. The studies carried out with nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, which are still present in different continents today, indicate that: these human communities can have very different cultures from the communities we consider modern and from the cultures we know today. For example, we see communities where kinship is not based on biological factors but on solidarity or co-nutrition among individuals. We see communities where the father of a child is the person who feeds him. At least in some hunter-gatherer groups, we see that patriarchy is not as dominant as it is today.
The transition to settled life, agriculture and livestock breeding has been the most radical change in human history to date. It paved the way to the modern look of the human communities. Now the product, savings, large crowds, social inequalities are possible. Biological kinship gained importance and patriarchal cultures became dominant. We are talking about a radical transformation here. Social structure, cultures and demography changed. There were changes even in biology, albeit limited. This is called the Neolithic Transformation, or the Neolithic Age as we learned to call in the elementary school.
The Neolithic Transformation developed independently in different parts of the world, but the first full-length Neolithic culture we know emerged in Southwest Asia. It started about 12 thousand years ago and lasted for thousands of years, roughly between 10000and 5000 BC. The first adobe houses, the warehouses where the wild grains were stored, the stone sickles ... This new way of life first developed in the eastern Mediterranean and northern Mesopotamia, in other words in the Fertile Crescent Region, then spread to Central Anatolia and Cyprus.
Over time, the first domestic wheat and barley evolved. People began to control the sheep, goat and pig herds, then to domesticate these animals. The population increased as the resources increased. This new way of life, domestic plants and animals, and technology spread in Southwest Asia, so did the rituals. For example, we see the customs such as burying the dead in a fetal position within the house, collecting the skulls from the graves and painting them, then burying them again. We can see the same customs in villages with thousands of miles between them.
In 7000 BC., Neolithic culture spread to Western Anatolia, Aegean and then to Europe. Within a few thousand years, the villages were all over Europe. Over time, the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle in Western Eurasia disappeared.
Archeology has been investigating this process of transformation and expansion for nearly a century. However, there are some questions that archaeologists still find difficult to answer. One of them is what changes they experienced in intra-community relations during the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to settled life. For example, how did the forms of kinship change during this period? How was the household structure? Was there a sex-linked hierarchy? Did the social inequality develop immediately or was it after millions of years from now? How long did the footprints of the hunter-gatherer egalitarian culture last?
Another question is the way of cultural sharing among Neolithic communities. How did the emerging technologies or rituals spread among the villages? Was it important for people to relocate from one village to another? For example, were there rituals spread among the settlements through the women's movement? Or were the communities sharing their technologies, seeds and animals freely with their neighbors in general? These questions apply both to the spread of Neolithic culture in Fertile Crescent as well as to the Aegean and Europe.
The kinship relations in Neolithic or the problems of Neolithicism in Western Anatolia stand at a point where archaeologists cannot solve by looking at similarities and differences of objective cultural elements. Here, we can talk about both anthropology and ancient DNA research.
Ancient DNA is the process of extracting DNA from the bones of living creatures that lived in the past, reading the DNA sequence, and comparing it with the DNA sequences of other living things. These genetic comparisons provide several types of information. First, we learn about demographic history, that is, migration and past events from DNA. Second, we find out the patterns of biological kinship within society. Third, we can know about natural selection, that is, some useful genetic features and their proliferation. These are the main ones.
In particular, the DNA sequencing process that became more affordable in the last 10 years has greatly facilitated the analysis of ancient DNA. Recognizing this development five years ago, Prof. Dr. İnci Togan from METU Department of Biology established Turkey's first ancient DNA lab with the support of TUBITAK and METU. METU ancient DNA team conducted and published the first ancient sheep DNA analysis of Anatolia at that time.
I joined this work in 2013. My friends from Çatalhöyük anthropology team encouraged me in this regard. Located in Konya, Çatalhöyük is a very large Neolithic village that was ruled between the years of 7100-5900 BC. The people from Çatalhöyük used to bury the dead in the foundation of their houses in general. Sometimes a few dozen people are found to have been buried in a building. Well, are these people biological relatives? This was the main question of Çatalhöyük anthropologists. They had done an analysis based on dental structure similarity before, and they came to the conclusion that these individuals could not be biological relatives. Now they wanted to confirm this result with DNA. All of Çatalhöyük's anthropologists were foreigners, but they did not want to have their samples analyzed abroad and were looking for a local ancient DNA team.
Thus, we started Neolithic Anatolia ancient DNA research by receiving some TUBITAK funds. It was also quite helpful to collaborate with an experienced Swedish research team on human ancient DNA.
However, we did not know what to expect when we started the experiments. I was also quite pessimistic. This was because such an old human ancient DNA was not revealed until that time from Anatolia or similar geographies. The DNA could be disappearing rapidly in the relatively hot Anatolian climate.
But we were lucky. A team under the leadership of the molecular biologist Dr. Füsun Özer from METU could gather sufficient DNA data from Boncuklu Höyük in Konya, one of the early villages of the Central Anatolia, and then from Tepecik - Çiftlik Höyük in Niğde, one of the later villages. A computational biology team led by Dr. Gülşah Kılınç, who worked with us at the time, analyzed the data. Parallel to other similar studies, this analysis showed that: Neolithic culture to Europe was brought by immigrant human communities. And these immigrants were relatives of Anatolian people at that time. Thus, many archaeological estimates were confirmed.
These early publications, however, could only very roughly examine prehistoric social relations. There were many deficiencies. One of the deficiencies was that very few Neolithic settlements from Anatolia were analyzed. Another one is that the dialogue among anthropologists, archaeologists and biologists was at a crawling phase about an issue that required intensive interdisciplinary work. Due to these deficiencies, my first ERC application in 2015 was rejected.
So, we started to overcome the deficiencies. A team was created including Assoc. Prof. Çiğdem Atakuman, the Director of METU Research and Application Center for Historical and Environmental Values TAÇDAM), Prof. Dr. Yılmaz Erdal from Department of Antropology at Hacettepe University, and İnci Togan, Füsun Özer and me from METU Department of Biological Sciences. Ayşegül Birand and Can Bilgin from the Department of Biological Sciences also provided support to the project. The NEOGENE project took shape in this way.
NEOGENE has a budget of over 2.5 million Euros; and will last for a total of 5 years. Basic genetic data of the project will be produced by an ancient DNA team led by Dr. Füsun Özer. For this, about 1500 samples of about 20 Neolithic Anatolian settlements will be screened by DNA sequencing method according to their genetic content. In this way, samples with and without human DNA will be identified and the most promising 350 individuals will be analyzed in depth. These figures indicate that NEOGENE will be the most comprehensive ancient DNA work known to date in this geography.
Yılmaz Erdal carried out the classification and anthropological review of the vast majority of the human samples to be used. These also include the samples from the renowned settlements such as Aşıklı Höyük and Çayönü. The materials obtained from Çatalhöyük and Boncuklu Höyük excavations were also provided to the project. In the study, sheep samples from the same period will also be genetically examined.
Following the generation of the genetic data, the second stage of the project deals with bioinformatic analyzes to be carried out to determine genetic kinship between individuals and gene flow between communities, which falls into the scope of my specialty.
The third stage addresses the compilation of the bioarchaeological data of the same individuals and material culture data of the same settlements. Çiğdem Atakuman and her team undertook this part of the study. The TAÇDAM team will bring together the objective cultural data obtained from all known Neolithic settlements of Anatolia and try to develop hypotheses with all the team members to explain the relationship between the propagation of these items and DNA propagation. Here, the similarities between pottery, stone tools, figurines, seals, architectural items and ones like the burial of the dead will be quantified.
In the final phase of the study, there is a joint analysis of genetic, bioarchogical and archaeological data. This synthesis effort is one of the unique aspects of NEOGENE. At this stage, Elif Sürer from METU Informatics Institute and her team will carry out cultural history simulations by quantifying archeological data and evaluating them together with genetic results so that the hypotheses can be effectively tested.
We have two questions that we need to answer. First, how did the social structure change during the Neolithic Transformation? For example, were those buried in houses built at the same area in Aşıklı Höyük for hundreds of years, or those buried together in Çatalhöyük biological relatives? If so, from mother's or father's side? Where and when did biological kinship gain importance during the development of the Neolithic culture? Did the first peasants differ from each other immediately due to their social natures, or did they maintain their old social traditions for thousands of years? If the DNA is preserved as much as we hope in the samples, we will finally be able to answer these questions.
Another question is how Neolithic culture spread in various geographies of Anatolia. Did they spread by immigration or gradual human activity? Or does the information exchange between neighbors make it clear? Or was it the contacts during the purchase of goods such as sheep, goats, obsidian? We will try to distinguish these different models. Well, as far as we can.
We expect to start the project in February. But even before the outset, I think it has a few remarkable impacts. One of them is the emphasis it puts on the importance of interdisciplinary and collective work. Indeed, we could not construct this work without researchers from different disciplines. At first, getting used to working together was not easy, but we understood each other better in the course of time. I am sure this will be further improved. We hope that similar teams will be created in Turkey.
The second impact is to show that ancient DNA studies can be performed using our own resources in this region. The Neolithic of the Near East attracts everyone, but most of the published work bears the signature of researchers from the United States or Germany; local researchers are not even included as an author in most of them. Do these studies really contribute to the archeology of these regions? Are the studies executed in Western universities and where local archeologists and geneticists do not participate transferred to the local people or how are they reflected? There is a problem here.
Yes, ancient DNA is an expensive research area, but the work in our region also needs to progress. We have to push the limits. We need to establish ancient DNA teams in our entire geography from Iran to Armenia, from Greece to Syria and Jordan, and we must cooperate with them in the first place. We encourage our neighbors in this direction.