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SOUTHWEST ASIA: THE “NEAR EAST”. The “Cradle of Civilization”. Driscoll C A et al. PNAS 2009;106:9971-9978 (years before present, BP). Anatolia. Zagros Mountains (Jarmo). Levant (Jericho). V. Gordon Childe’s Neolithic Revolution: The Oasis Theory (1928, 1936).

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southwest asia the near east


The “Cradle of Civilization”



Zagros Mountains




v gordon childe s neolithic revolution the oasis theory 1928 1936
V. Gordon Childe’s Neolithic Revolution: The Oasis Theory (1928, 1936)

As Pleistocene glaciers melted, world’s climate became hotter and drier

In desert areas, the few well watered areas became oases

People, animals, and plants became more densely concentrated near oases and desert streams

Forced association led to greater intimacy, even symbiotic relationships, between humans and plants/animals, and then domestication (domestic or “tame”)

Jericho, Isreal


Kathleen Kenyon excavated at Jericho (1952-58)

to test Childe’s Oasis Theory. She discovered

pre-Neolithic occupations (Natufian hunter-gatherers)

and two early Aceramic Neolithic occupations

(Pre-Pottery Neolithic A, or PPNA, and PPNB).


Ancient Jericho (Tell es-Sultan)

Aceramic Neolithic tower

On top of small Natufian occupation, the long-lived Neolithic settlement rivaled

the later Bronze-Age settlement in size (2.5 ha) and had a wall and ditch, like the

later occupations. Early Neolithic occupations lacked ceramics, hence PPNA, PPNB.

braidwood s hilly flanks theory
Braidwood’s Hilly Flanks Theory

Hilly flanks of Zagros Mountains, Iraq: rich natural habitat for wild grasses (natural habitat zone hypothesis; Peake-Fleur, 1927)

Argued that there was little evidence of dramatic post-Pleistocene desiccation (now known to be an important factor in Pleistocene-Holocene transition in the Younger Dryas cooling period)

Agriculture was logical outcome of cultural experimentation and elaboration as hunters-gatherers settled-in in those areas where wild grasses were present

Like Childe’s model, assumes agriculture is logical outcome of humanity seeking to improve its condition


Robert Braidwood excavated at

Jarmo, Iraq (1948-1955) to test

the “hilly flanks hypothesis”

Jarmo: A Village of Early FarmersRobert Braidwood in Antiquity Volume 24:189 (1950)

farming towns
Farming Towns

Food production and more sedentary ways of life resulted in growth in settlement size and provided foundation for numerous cultural innovations outside of subsistence

Domestication and settled village life were traditionally seen as happening more or less simultaneously, although more recent research shows a more complicated story

thomas malthus
Thomas Malthus

An essay on the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society (1798)

Population naturally grows until something dramatic occurs

Population growth kept in check through mortality (misery, war, famine, epidemics)

Neo-Malthusian premise: population growth is dependent variable, determined by preceding changes in subsistence potential

as population reaches critical threshold, or “carrying capacity,” population growth is checked (held in place) by some cultural or natural factor (contraception, infanticide, disease, famine)


Neo-Malthusian View: Revolutionary Change

Population growth dependent on technology

Intensive agriculture


Food Foraging

ester boserup
Ester Boserup

Made population growth the independent variable

Technology will respond when population growth approaches critical threshold (carrying capacity) creating demographic stress

Agriculture emerges due to population pressure (demographic stress) and the need to technologically increase carrying capacity

The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (1965)


Carrying capacity

Mathusian = Black

(population = dependent variable)

Boserupian = Red

(population = independent variable)

lewis binford s 1968 marginal zone model
Lewis Binford’s (1968) Marginal Zone Model

Environmental changes in late Pleistocene encouraged development of early sedentary villages in areas of rich resources;

Inevitable population growth forced some groups to move to more marginal areas;

We should expect to find the earliest evidence of agriculture not in prime areas but in marginal areas where people had to expand their “diet breadth” – in prime areas existing technology/diet were adequate;

Kent Flannery attempted to test this theory at Ali Kosh and later work by Flannery in Mesoamerica supported Boserup’s idea (domesticated crops long before sedentism): broad-spectrum revolution (1969), decreased mobility, increased fertility, and population growth, and the increased reliance on large-seed grasses


Haplotype frequency among geographic regions at multiple loci infer at least two domestications of barley; one within the Fertile Crescent and a second 1,500–3,000 km farther east. The Fertile Crescent domestication contributed the majority of diversity in European and American cultivars, whereas the second domestication contributed most of the diversity in barley from Central Asia to the Far East. (Morell and Clegg, PNAS, 2/07)

netiv hagdud israel
Netiv Hagdud, Israel

Very early evidence of domesticated plants (c. 9500-8,500 BC) in Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)

Hunting gazelle, fish, waterfowl, 50 species of wild plants, especially wild cereal grasses harvested with sickles (included a semi-tough rachis, two-row domesticated barley)

Mud-houses, cereals stored in bins

Cereal seeds– supplementary food

during the colder Younger Dryas (12.8-11.6 k) early cultivation : emerged as environment stress forced people to rely more heavily on cultivated species. Natufians (late Epipaleolithic, 12,000 to 9,600 BC; 14-11.6 k) shifted to management and early cultivation of grasses as natural stands depleted

(Bar-Yosef and Goffer 1997)


Early Epipaleolithic (ca. 20,000 – 13,000 BC)

  • Late Glacial maximum
  • Cluster of small oval (3-4 m) huts; more settled
  • Organics survived from being waterlogged
  • Grinding stones, gazelle, remains from a diversity of ecological zones

Ohalo II

Netiv Hagdud



Small, round, semi-subterranean houses,

lined with grasses

(PNAS, Nadel et al. 2004)

The beginning of agriculture is one of the most important developments in human history, with enormous consequences that paved the way for settled life and complex society.
  • Much of the research on the origins of agriculture over the last 40 years has been guided by Flannery’s (1969, in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals) ‘‘broad spectrum revolution’’ (BSR) hypothesis, which posits that the transition to farming in southwest Asia entailed a period during which foragers broadened their resource base to encompass a wide array of foods that were previously ignored in an attempt to overcome food shortages.
  • A collection of >90,000 plant remains, recently recovered from the Stone Age site Ohalo II (23,000 B.P.), Israel, offers insights into the plant foods of the late Upper Paleolithic.
  • The staple foods of this assemblage were wild grasses, pushing back the dietary shift to grains some 10,000 years earlier than previously recognized. Besides the cereals (wild wheat and barley), small-grained grasses made up a large component of the assemblage, indicating that the BSR in the Levant was even broader than originally conceived, encompassing what would have been low-ranked plant foods.
  • Over the next 15,000 years small-grained grasses were gradually replaced by the larger-grained cereals (wheats and barley)
  • From PNAS, Weiss et al. 2004

Domestication was a very long-term process that involved changes in

human behaviors and changes in plant and animal communities, as well as climate

  • Wheat and barley refined into cereals 23,000 years ago, suggesting that humans were processing grains long before hunter-gatherer societies developed agriculture. Earliest known oven, evidence of baking.
  • Routine processing of a selected group of wild cereals, combined with effective methods of cooking ground seeds, were practiced at least 12,000 years before their domestication in southwest Asia.

Piperno et al. (2004), Nature

natufian eynan ain mellaha israel 12 000 9 600 bc
NatufianEynan (Ain Mellaha), Israel12,000- 9,600 BC

Earliest “true village” in the world

- Long-term settlement

- Over 70 structures

- Population estimated 300

Wild Barley and Almonds

Found in Hearths

Wild Cereals - Important


abu hureyra syria
Abu Hureyra, Syria

Small village (11,000-9,600 BC), focused on hunted and gathered foods in this marginal location (situated in transition area between ecological zones). Living in small, round, semi-subterranean houses

Clear evidence of fairly intensive cultivation of cereal grains, notably rye, which was soon domesticated (earliest domesticated species, by 9,600 BC, at end of Younger Dryas cold phase)

At this time hunted gazelles, wild cattle, pigs, goats, and other species

Abandoned and later reoccupied by Neolithic (PPNA) group and grew to large community (>1,000) living in rectangular, mud-brick structures with storage compartments and upper story living areas

By Neolithic times, ca. 7500-6500 BC, gazelles depleted and domesticated sheep were dominant

9500-9000 BC

New evidence from the site of Abu Hureyra suggests that systematic cultivation of cereals in fact started well before the end of the Pleistocene by at least 13000 years ago [11,000 BC], and that rye was among the first crops. The evidence also indicates that hunter-gatherers at Abu Hureyra first started cultivating crops in response to a steep decline in wild plants that had served as staple foods for at least the preceding four centuries.
  • The decline in these wild staples is attributable to a sudden, dry, cold, climatic reversal (Younger Dryas). At Abu Hureyra, therefore, it appears that the primary trigger for the occupants to start cultivating caloric staples was climate change. It is these beginnings of cultivation in the late Pleistocene that gave rise to the integrated grain-livestock Neolithic farming systems of the early Holocene.
  • “What they did was to take seed of the wild cereals from higher areas to the West, and sowed it close to Abu Hureyra in areas such as breaks in slope, where soil moisture was greatly enhanced naturally.”
  • “Wild stands of these cereals could not have continued to grow unaided in such locations because they would have been out-competed by dryland scrub. Therefore, these first cultivators had to clear the competing vegetation.”
  • Hillman et al. The Holocene, Vol. 11, No. 4, 383-393 (2001).

Abu Hureya

Aceramic Neolithic Settlement

jerf el ahmar syria
Jerf el Ahmar, Syria
  • (9600-8800 BC), filling gap at Abu Hureyra (PPNA), with wild game and cereals
  • Houses of diverse plans, core of small rectangular houses, around large circular communal structure (storage), with small round mud-brick structures at edges
  • Later circular communal structure for ritual/public functions (?)
implications of food production
Implications of Food Production

Increased carrying capacity, Greater number of people can be supported on given unit of land

Requires more intensive land use, which, in most cases, is cost-deficient (I.e., higher cost-benefit ratio)

Sedentary settlement is a must for intensive agriculture (delayed return on labor);

Accumulation of material culture and infrastructure

Decreased mobility does seem to be linked with increased population growth - increased fertility and capacity for child rearing

Increased potential for infectious disease

Decline in overall health; Nutritional deficiencies from diminished diversity in diet; work related pathologies

Less free time, at least for producers

Increase in social complexity, emergence of segmentary groups in larger communities (lineages/clans), and, later, more hierarchical groups, class of non-producers, greater differences in wealth

Trade, interaction, diffusion, and migration




Fertile Crescent

Expansion of Near East

Farming Complex


Zeder (2008), PNAS, years before present (BP)

Red = Colonist groups

Blue = Integration of colonists and indigenous groups

Green = Diffusion


Göbekli Tepe, SE Turkey

Religious Center Before Agriculture

  • - 9000-8000 BC
  • - 300 m diameter mound, 15 m high
  • - Served as a central place, with no traces
  • of domestic buildings or village life
  • Semi-subterranean circular structure with
    • T-shaped stone monuments (five mapped,
    • 20 more based on geophysical survey)
atalh y k turkey
Çatalhöyük, Turkey
  • Great mound (13 ha, 32 acres), rebuilt many times between ca. 7,300-6,200 BC, several thousand people, tightly packed houses
  • agglomerated settlement of connected rectangular-roomed houses with flat roofs and room entrances
  • remarkable for its artistic tradition and trade, including carefully constructed shrines with painted walls and sophisticated figurine and plastic art
  • Prospered through trade – obsidian, shell, turquoise, jadite, other exotics –

13 ha (32 acres) and over 21 m of

stratified occupation debris;

Aggregated houses divided into

family living compartments


Sub-floor burials in houses

(some with none, some with many)


We return to SW

Asia later, with

the rise of state


Next, the rise

of farming in the

East Asia