8. The Neolithic Expansion

8.4 The Near East

8.4.1 The first farming communities

All around the world, the capacity to obtain seeds from plants and sow these to increase the stock, seems to have been mastered by hunters-gatherers who originally planted them for magic purposes. Many ancient people strove, for millennia, on economies that blended foraging and farming. The need to turn to agriculture in perennial settlements occurred only several centuries after the domestication of plants, and only in some parts of the world: by 10,500 years ago in the Near East, 7,000 years ago in China, and later in the Americas and Africa. The combination of settlement and reliable food supplies brought about healthier women, setting the stage for cities and civilization.

The first farming communities have been unearthed in the Near East region’s grassy uplands, in the middle reaches of its major river valleys, along the Mediterranean, in Cyprus, Crete and Greece. They date back about 9,500 years ago. In the Near East, the incipient food collecting communities are those whose inhabitants manipulated plants and animals without having full command over growth and breeding. An example of imperfect breeding control is the Indian elephant, which is let loose when in heat. The offspring must be captured and tamed anew, each time. Another example is the parrot, that does not reproduce in captivity.

Neolithic agriculture was based on three cereals (einkorn wheat, emmer wheat and barley), on four legumes (lentil, pea, chickpea and bitter vetch) and on a fiber crop (flax). The wild progenitors of these seven crops and flax are only found together in a small core area near the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in present day northern Syria and southeastern Turkey. Genetic evidence indicates that these crops, except barley, were domesticated only once. Given the revolutionary nature of the switch from food gathering to food raising, it is unlikely that agriculture was invented independently in several locations. These domesticated crops appeared in the core area about 9,500 years ago, and there is no evidence of domesticated forms earlier than 9,000 years ago in regions beyond this core area. In this core area, the archeological record indicates a wealthy society with plenty of food, with impressive architecture and objects of prestige. It is quite possible that the cool, dry climatic episode of the Younger Drias, about 11,000 years ago, triggered the beginning of farming settlements in that area16. The new mode of living spread from the core area to the Fertile Crescent (fig. 8.21).


Figure 8.21. The Fertile Crescent. Red closed circles indicate sites where food production was known.

The people still hunted and collected a substantial amount of food. They enjoyed a varied, adequate and well-balanced diet, which was possibly superior to that of the contemporary dwellers. They used querns, rubbing stones, stone pestles, eliminating therewith coarse particles in the diet, with the result that their teeth show even milling and no marginal enamel fractures nor excessive dental erosion. Goats, sheep and cattle were first husbanded as producers of meat and hides; wild cattle give little milk, and wild sheep are not wooly but hairy.

Throughout the 2,000 years during which agriculture was developing, the communities dispersed in the region, came in contact with one another. The contacts arising from the trading of goods were a major factor in the rapid development of the cultural evolution taking place. People were exchanging ideas on the manufacture of flint and obsidian projectile points. The inclusion of islands among the sites of technological advances indicates that navigational skills were developed. At that time, since neither roads nor pack animals were available, transport of goods took place on human backs or by boat. One of the traded goods was obsidian, a hard brittle volcanic glass obtained in certain areas of recent volcanic activity such as parts of Italy, some Aegean islands and parts of Turkey and Iran. Eleven thousand years ago, obsidian was not used to an appreciable extent by people practicing incipient agriculture. It came into general use by the time the first farming villages were founded. The extent of adoption depended naturally on the distance from the sources of supply. The trading patterns of obsidian show no intercourse between the Central Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Near-East (fig. 8.22). These trading zones were conducive to variation. In the Near East itself, the villages showed a considerable diversity in the customs and beliefs that made their common culture.


Figure 8.22. Obsidian trade patterns show that, although the volcanic glass was often shipped long distances from its sources, trade apparently did not take place between three regions. Within each of these three regions, obsidian from two sources may be found at one site. A fourth region might have existed, enclosing Sardinia, Corsica and part of Italy, i.e. there where the Etruscans evolved.

A team of British and Kuwaiti archaeologists claims to have found 17 the remains of a boat that is 7,000 years old. This find, dating 5500 to 5300 BC, offers concrete evidence to explain the trade. The unearthed Kuwaiti boat was built before true sea-trading networks emerged. Preliminary analyses show surprisingly advanced planning for its building: the bitumen came from a site nearly hundred kilometers distant. It was mixed with fish oil and crushed coral that match the substances used 3000 years later. In this prehistoric era, textual evidence is absent but boat models from the fifth millennium BC have been found at Eridu.

Trade and transport of goods back and forth across the Arabian Sea began some 3000 years after the Kuwaiti boat was built. At that time, 14-meter-long vessels built of bitumen and reeds could carry 8 tons of cargo.

8.4.2 The expansion

A drastic difference is usually drawn between the nomadic way of life of the hunter or stock raiser and the life of the farmer. Such a difference does not initially exist. Farming is still today practiced in some parts of the world by clearing a place in the forest, planting a great variety of crops and moving over to another place the next year, once the production declines. Cotton planters in the US practiced this method and the New Caledonians are still doing it. The value of the land is thus of preponderant importance in determining the status of the farmer as nomadic or sedentary.

Temporary agriculture was the way of life North of the Alps for a very long time, since the Greek geographer Strabon notes the propensity, in his eyes extraordinary, of Germanic tribes to move. This indicates that their invasions of sedentary lands were largely occasional. In Crete and Greece, sedentariness is the attribute of the farmer since immemorial times. The Neolithic way of life presented a character that was intrinsically expansive.

The first farmers very soon encountered the problem of exhaustion of arable land. The solution to this was to migrate. The reason why the Neolithic Way of life spread so fast along the Danube from the Near East to Great Britain is that arable land produced by loess is discontinuous. It forces the farmer to a constant movement forwards that was easy to perform because the land in front was almost empty and the farmer needed initially only a small part of it: he did not disturb the hunter. One must here note that alluvial earth along the Black sea was extremely fertile and probably occupied and exploited by agriculturists. At that time, the Black sea was a closed sea filled with fresh water provided by the Danube, the Dniepr, the Dniestr, the Don and the Volga, but the level of water was about 150 meters lower than the sea level.


Figure 8.23. About 20,000 years ago, the water of the oceans was sequestered in glaciers and the level of the seas was about 150-200 meters lower than today. The Adriatic was nearly non-existent. Sicily was part of Italy and close to the African coast. The Black Sea was a plain, eventually with a lake, about 15,000 years ago, created by the rivers (Danube, Volga) when the glaciers began to melt.

When the Mediterranean Sea rushed into the Black sea, about 7,500 years ago, the level of the water rose by about 10 centimeters a day during 600 years, eventually covering 100,000 square kilometers of arable land. This catastrophe must have provoked an exodus upstream along the rivers, namely the Danube. The flooding mentioned in the Bible (Noah) and Mesopotamian documents may be explained by this rise.

8.4.3 Catal Hüyük

The oldest known substantial congregation of houses is Catal Hüyük, founded 9,000 years ago in Anatolia. It was in advance of Sumer by 3,500 years and of Egypt by 4,000 years.

The “town” could have had as many as 10,000 inhabitants. It was constructed on the “pueblo” model in use in certain parts of North America and South-Tunisia: people went from one home to the other via the roofs. The town existed as an architectural whole, with graphic representation of the city and other mural paintings. Melted lead and copper, obsidian and silex were worked. Textiles were known. Ropes were used to hang people and to catch wild animals. Daily life was made more agreeable by the use of spoons, mirrors, boxes, belts and make-up18. The dog was domesticated and cereals were consumed. The society was matriarchal. Mother God is the principal deity symbolizing Life and Death (fig. 8.24).


Figure 8.24. Venus from Catal Hüyük. This sixth-millenium B.C. figurine, gross and enigmatic mother goddess, represents man’s earliest mythmaking impulses.

A structural religion seems to have existed, with sanctuaries and a sacred animal, the vulture. The dead were left outside, for the sacred vultures to feed on. After the removal of the flesh, the skeletons were taken back to town and buried under the houses. The highly inbred Parsees of contemporary India, who moved from Anatolia to India under Islamic pressure, practice these customs now.

If a town is defined as a city endowed with the signs of a political authority, then Catal Hüyük is not a town. It was devoid of the buildings that characterize communal life, such as a city hall, a church, and a forum. A town is characterized by the fact that farmers do not live in it. At Catal Hüyük, it is the contrary: only farmers lived in it. There were no specialized corporations (builders, tool makers, priests) but each household constructed its own house and produced for itself the goods it used. Catal Hüyük is an overgrown village. The reason why the farmers crammed their houses together is a mystery. The village was built along a river. Frequent floodings created a lush wetlands environment and people ate both wild and cultivated plants and seeds. In fact, the people of Catal Hüyük were poor agriculturists and even poorer herdsmen. Catal Hüyük is the vivid proof that sedentarism and agglomeration do not go hand in hand with agriculture. Probably, as in Nanchoc, the prime cause of agglomeration is to be found in magic, religious practices.

8.4.4 Sumer and Egypt

The people of Ubaid, having already mastered various elaborate techniques such as copper mining and metallurgy, polyculture, weaving and pottery making, descended 6,000 years ago from the high countryside into the meridional part of Iraq (i.e. Sumer). That territory lacked minerals, had no wood or stone, and the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, were quite wild and provided no annual floodings that might reinvigorate the arable land. The early farmers relied upon the natural watercourses and slowly modified them by the building of dikes and the construction of short off-take canals into the fields. The protohistoric and early historic settlements were situated along streams. Swamps, steppes and pastures were widespread in early Mesopotamia and provided fish and fowl for food, reeds for baskets making, hut construction, and fodder for livestock.

As in South East Asia and in Peru (Nanchoc), farmers and herdsmen lived in widely scattered villages and small towns along streams. The number of these settlements increased during the latter part of the 6th millennium BP and clustered in areas of favorable water supplies. Uruk (see fig 10.1) achieved urban status because of its importance as a commercial and religious center. Other cities followed suit, with a consequent depopulation of the countryside. Farmers lived in cities and ploughed lands that were within walking distance of the cities, because there existed no extensive irrigation system that would enable the extension of farms. The building of canals was initiated in Sumer in the third millennium. This attempt was however suppressed by the subjugation of Sumer by the Babylonians and resumed only after the time of Christ. Nomads and Timberline halted it again.

Most frequently, the hunting tribes surrounding Neolithic fixation points took advantage of the better means of communication and warfare devised by these advanced civilizations (camel, horse, dromedary, roads, script, ships, iron tools and weapons, guns and cannons) to revert to nomadism and pillage, on land and on the seas. Ancient civilizations were extremely vulnerable and Nomadism was a deadly challenge, which usually prevailed, be it in the Americas or the Old World.

The apparently indigenous Amratian civilization of Egypt settled along the Nile 400 years after the kingdom of Sumer. The Nile valley was much better isolated from nomads than the Euphrates valley. Insulation of the country through desert lands allowed the emergence of a particular culture.


16. S. Lev-Yadun et al.: The cradle of agriculture. Science 288, 2000: 1602-1603

17. A Lawler: Report of oldest boat hints at early trade routes. Science 296: 1791-1792, 2002

18. Green malachite was pasted on eyelids not for esthetic purposes but to chase flies.

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