Geography: Overview

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3300-331: Geography: Overview

The Origins of Agriculture. The great ice sheets that covered much of the northern hemisphere for more than one hundred thousand years during the last Ice Age reached their greatest extent about twenty thousand years ago, whereupon they slowly began to recede. Some fourteen thousand years ago, the pace of the melting quickened, causing widespread and rapid changes in local climatic conditions as large-scale climatic zones shifted and reformed. Scattered bands of humans who subsisted by hunting and gathering found it necessary either to adapt themselves to new local environmental conditions or to move in search of an environment with a flora and fauna on which they could more readily subsist. Some thirteen thousand years ago a new culture, termed Natufian, emerged in the Mediterranean Levant—an area stretching from modern-day southern Israel northward across western Syria into the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in southern Anatolia (modern Turkey)—throughout which edible cereal grasses grew. These people are defined on the basis of their characteristic stone and bone tools and their burial practices, which included decorating the body of the deceased with headgear, necklaces, earrings, pendants, belts, and bracelets made of seashells from both the Mediterranean and Red Seas, as well as with teeth and bone and colored stone beads, including obsidian from Anatolia. These people lived in semipermanent villages and were the first to develop and use the sickle—consisting of small stone blades (microliths) set in a wooden or bone handle—rather than beaters and baskets to harvest more efficiently wild stands of cereal, which they exploited intensively and extensively. The cereals—together with the pulses (the edible seeds of peas, beans, and lentils), nuts, and fruits that they gathered—were processed with stone mortars, bowls, and pestles for consumption. Hunting and fishing provided animal protein in the form of gazelle and other game, birds, and fish. The climate in this period was unstable, and a thousand-year-long return to colder, drier conditions beginning about eleven thousand years ago appears to have brought Natufian culture to an end.

The Neolithic Revolution. V. Gordon Childe, a twentieth-century British philosopher and archaeologist, coined the term Neolithic Revolution to describe the origin and consequences of farming and the widespread development of settled village life. Archaeological excavations reveal that, following a return to wetter climatic conditions about 10,300 years ago (circa 8300 b.c.e.), Neolithic (“new stone age”) village-farming communities began to appear in an arc extending up the Mediterranean Levantine coast eastward across the river valleys and well-watered steppe between southern Anatolia and northern Syria and Iraq (northern Mesopotamia), then southward along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran—the “Fertile Crescent.” Here, over approximately the next two millennia, cultivation and domestication of native plants (such as wheat, barley, bitter vetch, pea, and lentil) and domestication of native animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs) began to occur and supplied an ever-greater proportion of the villagers’ diet. The earliest villages may have held many hundreds of individuals, necessitating the development of new means to maintain social cohesion, perhaps through public ceremonies and rituals in shrines and newly designated public spaces. The largest known Neolithic site in western Asia, Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia, may have supported a population of five thousand people.

The Neolithic Period in Mesopotamia. Northern Mesopotamia is characterized by higher elevations than in the south, rocky steppe lands, and gorges cut by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries. The region is bordered to the north and west by the foothills and mountains of the Taurus range, with the Syrian Desert to the southwest. The northern- and eastern-most portions of northern Mesopotamia lie within a zone where reliable annual average rainfall is sufficient for “dry farming”; that is, seasonal rainfall and groundwater alone are able to sustain a crop. Southern Mesopotamia, on the other hand, consists of a broad, flat, low-lying alluvial plain created by the rivers, with levees formed along their banks, and lush marshlands toward the Persian Gulf. This region does not receive sufficient rainfall to permit dry farming, although hunter-gatherer and fishing communities might thrive. Beginning about 6500 b.c.e. a sequence of cultures began to establish new agricultural settlements within the dry-farming belt across the northern Mesopotamian plain and southward along the flanks of the Zagros Mountains. These communities, increasingly surrounded by defensive walls, produced clay pottery—some quite fine and beautifully decorated and painted—for storing and serving food and beverages. Native copper, as well as copper smelted from ore, began to be used for tools and jewelry. Eventually, molded rectangular mud bricks began to replace packed mud for building construction, with buttresses supporting the walls of some larger buildings. At several sites within the dry-farming zone, irrigation canals were built and maintained in an effort to increase the efficiency and production of the farming.

Occupation of the Southern Plain. The earliest evidence for a permanent farming settlement on the southern alluvial plain is dated to approximately the early sixth millennium b.c.e. The culture that evolved there is termed Ubaid, after the name of the site where its distinctive material culture was first identified by archaeologists. During the fifth millennium b.c.e. Ubaid-style painted pottery is found across an ever-broader area, spreading northward into northern Mesopotamia, where it replaced the earlier local Halaf painted-pottery tradition. Ubaid pottery has also been found across north Syria toward the Mediterranean, in south central Anatolia, and along the Arabian coastline of the Persian Gulf as far south as modern-day Qatar. In this period, at the site of what in the historical period was the southernmost Sumerian city of Eridu (modern Abu Shahrain), the rise to prominence of the priesthood can perhaps also be traced. At this site, archaeologists uncovered a sequence of temples, one built upon the leveled remains of another. The smallest and simplest is dated to circa 5400 b.c.e.; the latest, largest, and most complex dates to the proto-historic period, circa 3300 b.c.e.

Early Urbanization. During the millennium beginning circa 4000 b.c.e., the stages of urban development from village to city and from prehistory to the historical period are most clearly seen at the site of Uruk (Warka), whose name designates this period. During the period there was a change in population pattern. From a remarkably even distribution of towns along the watercourses of central Mesopotamia there was a southward shift toward Sumer, where clusters of small communities surrounded ever-larger urban centers, the foremost of which was Uruk. During this period there was also a marked increase in the size and complexity of the irrigation system, and the fields it watered produced vast quantities of grain for human consumption and of plant fodder to support herds of small and large cattle, which produced milk for dairy products; in addition, sheep provided wool for textile manufacturing. Religious architecture developed new monumental proportions. Mass-produced wheel-made pottery, wheeled vehicles, the ox-drawn plow, and carved stone bowls and cylinder seals were introduced. There was also a dramatic increase in the use of copper for tools. Toward the end of the fourth millennium b.c.e., proto-cuneiform writing appeared at Uruk as a tool for maintaining administrative control over raw materials and finished goods and their producers and consumers.

The Proto-Literate Period. The ubiquitous mud of the southern alluvial plain was used to build dikes as part of the irrigation system, to make bricks for building, and to create clay tablets as a writing surface. The region is almost completely bereft of other natural resources; there are only small outcrops of comparatively soft stone, which is not particularly suitable as building material; there are no metals or metal ores in the region; nor are there hardwoods suitable for construction. The Uruk ruling elite began to obtain these materials through trade, exchanging the significant surpluses of agricultural products and textiles that the Uruk economic system was generating. During the Late Uruk period (circa 3500 - circa 3000 b.c.e.), Uruk’s influence was felt beyond Sumer, throughout the rest of Mesopotamia, deep into Syria and into southern Anatolia, as well as at Susa in southwestern Iran. Late Uruk cylinder seals, artistic motifs, and building techniques have even been observed in Egypt. The available evidence suggests that, during the last century of the Proto-Literate period, also known as the Jamdat Nasr period (circa 3000 – circa 2900 b.c.e.), Sumer’s foreign links were severed. However, central Mesopotamian pottery has been found at sites in Oman at the southern end of the Persian Gulf. At Susa, the Proto-Elamite urban culture arose, and evidence of its spread has been found across the breadth of the Iranian plateau. By circa 2900 b.c.e., southern Mesopotamia had entered a period of prolonged decline; its cause—whether social, political, economic, or environmental—remains much debated.

Climatic Changes in the Historical Period. Modern studies of the ancient climate have suggested that prior to the first millennium b.c.e. overall levels of precipitation in the ancient Near East were low, with several protracted periods of significantly below average rainfall. The first of these periods, circa 3200 – circa 2900 B.C.E, appears to be contemporary with the Late Uruk and Jamdat Nasr periods, a time of intense expansion of the system of irrigation canals in southern Mesopotamia. Recent paleoclimate studies of the ancient Near East point to a second, extremely severe period of drought that began suddenly circa 2075+125 b.c.e., and lasted for some three hundred years—contemporary with the period of the Akkadian Empire, the Guti invasion, and the Third Dynasty of Ur. It has been suggested that this dramatic climatic shift caused catastrophic crop losses in the dry-farming regions of north Syria, depriving the Akkadian Empire of its “bread basket,” and thereby precipitating the sudden collapse of the empire. The protracted drought may then be seen as a significant factor in the subsequent migration of foreigners into the heavily irrigated areas of Mesopotamia: the Guti from the Zagros Mountains to the east at the time of the Akkadian collapse and—in much greater numbers—the Amorites from the west during the Ur III period. A brief dry spell at circa 1300 b.c.e., perhaps coincident with the end of the “International Period,” was followed by fluctuating, but overall above average rainfall throughout the first millenium b.c.e., during the time of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Seleucid empires. Although these coincidences between climatic variations and political events are suggestive, not all ancient historians are convinced of their connection.