Stone Age Mesopotamia

10,000 year old tower from Jericho

Episode 3: Neolithic Farming, Trading and Pottery

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

This lecture covers the Neolithic (new Stone Age) period in Mesopotamia (9,000 – 5,000 BC). During this period, plants and animals domesticated by pre-Neolithic settlers provided the bulk of people’s diet. However most residents added to their diet by fishing, hunting and gathering berries and other plant-based food.

Remains from the first farming settlements are found in northern Mesopotamia and the Levant [1], both areas with sufficient rainfall not to require irrigation. Peas and Lentils were grown close to the Eastern Mediterranean and Einkorn wheat in the Western Levant. Sheep, pigs, goats and cattle were herded in northern Mesopotamia. The rest of region was uninhabited prior to the advent of irrigation technology, except for Jericho. The latter relied on Persian Gulf agricultural settlements fed by a natural spring.

Tools used during this period relied on obsidian (which made the best knives), imported from Anatolia,[2] and bitumen (made from petroleum deposits), used to waterproof baskets and boats. Early inhabitants of Mesopotamia also adopted a new use of fire, which was first discovered by pre-human hominids. They burned limestone to make plaster, and to cover walls and floors and for food storage vessels and human figurines.[3]

Around 6,000 BC, Mesopotamian farmers moved south into flood plains lying between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Thanks to thousands of years of silt laid down by the two rivers, they found the soil there extremely fertile. Moreover with the fields lying downhill from the rivers, it was easy to exploit early summer floods by building simple dykes, levees and reinforced irrigation channels.

The city of Samarra dates from this later period. Samarra culture is characterized by distinctive clay pots (repaired with bitumen) and figurines. The Samarrans grew barley and several kinds of wheat and herded sheep, goats and cattle. They also hunted and fished.

Tel Halaf in Northeastern Syria was another city (5700 – 5000 BC) appearing during this period. Thanks to abundant rainfall, no irrigation was necessary.

Jericho and a second settlement known as Catal Huyuk grew large enough to qualify as towns (defined as hundreds of residents) during this period.

[1]The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia.

[2]Anatolia is a large peninsula in Western Asia that constitute the major part of modern-day Turkey.

[3]Although clay was used to make bricks, there was no clay pottery as yet. The advantage of clay pots is you can use them for cooking (plaster vessels disintegrate when they come in contact with fire. With clay pots, it became possible to make porridge out of grains, as well as clay ovens to cook flatbread.

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Appearance of Agriculture in the Cradle of Civilization

Episode 2: Natufian Villagers and Early Settlements

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Dr Amanda H Podany

Film Review

This lecture mainly concerns the first appearance of agriculture in the West, which Podany places around 8,500 BC in Northwest Syria and Southern Turkey. All archeological evidence suggests it developed totally independently in China, Africa and the Americas.

Previously ancient historians credited agriculture for prompting hunter gatherers to settle in villages and towns. This theory has now been discredited with the discovery that hunter gatherers also built permanent settlements in the present of abundant food sources. In fact archeological evidence suggests that hunter gathers lived much more satisfying lives than early farmers. They tended to enjoy 14 hours more leisure time than early farmers, as well as being taller, healthier and living longer than farmers of the same period and region.

Podany cites Natufian culture (15,000 – 11,500 BC in modern day Syria, Israel and Jordan) as a prime example of well-to-do settled hunter gatherers. Archeological evidence indicates a family of four could harvest a metric ton of wild Einkorn wheat (a year’s supply) in three weeks. However this meant they needed to store (and guard) the wheat and the decision to form village settlements possibly reflects this need.

According to Podany, Natufians lived in villages of 100 round houses and hunted birds and gazelles and caught fish. As hunter gatherers, they used fire and exquisite stone and bone tools (for fishing and dressing game) and wore necklaces made from beads. They also domesticated dogs and relied on shamans to heal them when they were sick.

There’s evidence that they domesticated some plants (pulses and grains) and animals (sheep, goats and animals) around 12,500 BC. Since they had such an easy life as hunter gatherers, many historians and archeologists speculate that were forced to grow additional food in years when climate change or overpopulation limited the supply of wild food.

She also gives the example of Gobleki Tepe (9500-8000 BC in southeastern Turkey) as a monumental complex (similar to Stonehenge) built by  hunter gatherers for some religious or other ceremonial purpose. What makes Gobleki Tepe unique is that it was clearly built by large numbers of workmen. All had to be fed. Yet there is no evidence of agricultural settlements from the same period in the immediate vicinity.

Film can be viewed with with a library card on Kanopy.