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.

Prehistory: Power, Cities and States

9 Things You May Not Know About the Ancient Sumerians ...

Ancient Sumer


Episode 5: Power, Cities and States

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin traces the 5,000 years of prehistory between 10,000 BC (when humans first adopted agriculture) and 5,000 BC (when the first cities arose). For the first 5,000 years human beings could only produce limited food through agriculture and had to supplement their intake through hunting and fishing.

With slash and burn agriculture, practiced in many areas of the world, villagers moved to new territory when soil fertility was exhausted or when populations grew to large too feed from existing gardens.

During this period a typical village consisted of 24 to 100 dwellings. Some villages were much larger if they had special spiritual significance or an exceptional water source or they became a trading center.

According to archeologists, there is no evidence of hierarchy, power structures or warfare in villages dating from this period. Wealth and power seems to have been shared equally between residents, regardless of sex or social status.

The first cities emerged in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas around 5,000 BCE. Their archeological remains are characterized by massive palaces and monuments indicative of powerful leaders with control over substantial resources and many people. According to to Benjamin, these leaders were initially appointed from below to fulfill specific needs, most commonly to wage war against neighboring cities, to mediate with the gods, to organized irrigation projects or to settle disputes between residents. Eventually a leader accumulated sufficient resources to impose power by force.

Benjamin believes the first cities arose owing to a big increase in food production he credits to improved irrigation and the traction power and manure of domesticated animals.

The first agriculture-based cities appeared in Sumer in Mesopotamia adjacent to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Over time, Sumer acquired dozens of cities, with Ur, Uruk and Eredu the most prominent. Uruk, the largest, had a population of 55,000.

Once it was no longer necessary for all residents to produce food to survive, city residents could undertake more specialized work, as craftsmen, potters, scribes, silversmiths, priests, administrators and snake charmers. It’s also clear that large numbers of slaves were needed to build walls, large buildings, monuments, and irrigation systems and to clean streets and dispose of garbage. In addition, a regular system of taxation or tribute to finance, city administration, temples and armies, as well as leaders extravagant lifestyles.

Writing was also central to city life to keep tract of taxes, tribute and administrative decisions.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

US Occupation of Iraq: the Environmental Legacy

Iraq’s Dying Rivers

Al Jazeera (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about the environmental degradation of the Middle East’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The intersection of the two rivers, referred to as the Fertile Crescent, is celebrated as the birthplace of the agricultural revolution and the first human settlements.

The two rivers join in southern Iraq to form the Shatt-al-Arab, which empties into the Arabian Sea. The marshes along the Shatt were previously home to 200,000 “Marsh Arabs,” who worked as fishermen until Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1950s. He reportedly did so to punish them for criticizing his regime.

The marshes were re-flooded in 2003, following the fall of Saddam. According to the UN, the wetlands habitat has only partially recovered (37%). This relates in part to dams on the upper Euphrates in Turkey and Syria. The latter have cut water levels in the Iraq segment of the Euphrates (making it more saline) by 50%. The river is also contaminated by industrial waste, agricultural runoff, human sewage, old rusting fishing vessels and the environmental damage resulting from nearly 30 years of US bombing campaigns (starting with the first US invasion in 1992).

Only 5,000 fisherman remain and all struggle to sustain their livelihood. In addition to declining fish stocks, they also face repeated harassment by the Iranian and Kuwaiti coast guard. The harassment stems from unresolved disputes between Iraq, Iran and Kuwait over their sea borders.

Fish stocks are also significantly reduced in the Tigris, which flows through Iraq’s capital city. While Baghdad fishermen are repeatedly hassled by Iraqi security forces, the Tigris is less contaminated and even serves as a source of drinking water.

At present, Iraq must import 60% of their fish, an important Iraqi dietary staple.