Early Settlements in Southwest Asia
The universal global warming at the end of the Ice Age had dramatic effects on temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Ice sheets retreated and sea levels rose. The climatic changes in southwestern Asia were more subtle, in that they involved shifts in mountain snow lines, rainfall patterns, and vegetation cover. However, these same cycles of change had momentous impacts on the sparse human populations of the region. At the end of the Ice Age, no more than a few thousand foragers lived along the eastern Mediterranean coast, in the Jordan and Euphrates valleys. Within 2,000 years, the human population of the region numbered in the tens of thousands, all as a result of village life and farming. Thanks to new environmental and archaeological discoveries, we now know something about this remarkable change in local life.
Pollen samples from freshwater lakes in Syria and elsewhere tell us forest cover expanded rapidly at the end of the Ice Age, for the southwestern Asian climate was still cooler and considerably wetter than today. Many areas were richer in animal and plant species than they are now, making them highly favorable for human occupation. About 9000 B.C., most human settlements lay in the area along the Mediterranean coast and in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and their foothills. Some local areas, like the Jordan River valley, the middle Euphrates valley, and some Zagros valleys, were more densely populated than elsewhere. Here more sedentary and more complex societies flourished. These people exploited the landscape intensively, foraging on hill slopes for wild cereal grasses and nuts, while hunting gazellea small, swiftly running desert animal and other game on grassy lowlands and in river valleys. Their settlements contain exotic objects such as seashells, stone bowls, and artifacts made of obsidian (volcanic glass), all traded from afar. This considerable volume of intercommunity exchange brought a degree of social complexity in its wake.
Thanks to extremely fine-grained excavation and extensive use of flotation methods (through which seeds are recovered from soil samples), we know a great deal about the foraging practices of the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra in Syria's Euphrates valley. Abu Hureyra was founded about 9500 B.C. a small village settlement of cramped pit dwellings (houses dug partially in the soil) with reed roofs supported by wooden uprights. For the next 1,500 years, its inhabitants enjoyed a somewhat warmer and damper climate than today, living in a well-wooded steppe area where wild cereal grasses were abundant. They subsisted off spring migrations of Persian gazelles from the south. With such a favorable location, about 300 to 400 people lived in a sizable, permanent settlement. They were no longer a series of small bands but lived in a large community with more elaborate social organization, probably grouped into clans of people of common descent.
The flotation samples from the excavations allowed botanists to study shifts in plant-collecting habits as if they were looking through a telescope at a changing landscape. Hundreds of tiny plant remains show how the inhabitants exploited nut harvests in nearby pistachio and oak forests. However, as the climate dried up, the forests retreated from the vicinity of the settlement. The inhabitants turned to wild cereal grasses instead, collecting them by the thousands, while the percentage of nuts in the diet fell. By 8200 B.C., drought conditions were so severe that the people abandoned their long-established settlement, perhaps dispersing into smaller camps.
Five centuries later, about 7700B.C., a new village rose on the mound. At first the inhabitants still hunted gazelle intensively. Then, about 7000 B.C., within the space of a few generations, they switched abruptly to herding domesticated goats and sheep and to growing einkorn, pulses, and other cereal grasses. Abu Hureyra grew rapidly until it covered nearly 30 acres. It was a close-knit community of rectangular, one-story mud-brick houses, joined by narrow lanes and courtyards, finally abandoned about 5000 B.C.. Many complex factors led to the adoption of the new economies, not only at Abu Hureyra, but at many other locations such as `Ain Ghazal, also in Syria, where goat toe bones showing the telltale marks of abrasion caused by foot tethering (binding) testify to early herding of domestic stock.