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.

 

ttps://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/natufian-villagers-and-early-settlements

The Origins of Agriculture

10 Things About the Agricultural Revolution, History's ...

Episode 4 The Origins of Agriculture

The Big History of Civilizations

Craig G Benjamin (2016)

Film Review

In this presentation, Benjamin offers an interesting perspective on a question that has long bothered me: why our hunter gatherer ancestors gave up foraging 12,000 years ago for agriculture. There is strong evidence that life was much easier for our nomadic ancestors before they took up farming. According to skeletal remains, hunter gatherers were better nourished, lived longer and had lower infant mortality and more leisure time. They were also free of all the viral epidemics domesticated animals have transmitted to us (measles, mumps, chickenpox, influenza, etc).

According to Benjamin, sudden global warming at the end of the last Ice Age (11,500 BCE) led to a big increase in the availability of food. This gave rise to what Benjamin refers to as “affluent foraging” cultures.* Food was so abundant that human beings in many regions abandoned nomadic lifestyles to establish permanent settlements. Benjamin believes this led our ancestors to abandon “natural” forms of population control (including infanticide and senicide*) that characterize nomadic hunter gatherers.

After a few generations, the sedentary affluent foraging cultures lost the skills essential for a successful nomadic lifestyle. Stressed by growing populations and scarce food resources, they were forced to produce their own by domesticating plants and animals. .

According to Benjamin, only 100 plants species and 14 animals species have proved suitable for domestication. The first domesticated plants were barley and emmer and enkorn wheat in Syria around 11,500 BCE. The first domesticated animal was the dog, somewhere between 23,000 and 15,000 years ago.


*The world’s first city, Jericho, was built by affluent foragers around 14,000 BCE.

**Senicide is the killing or abandonment of the elderly

 

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/origins-agriculture

The Paleolithic Era and the Origin of Homo Sapiens

The Big History of Civilizations

Episode 1: Foraging in the Old Stone Age

The Big History of Civilizations

Craig G Benjamin (2016)

Film Review

This is the best presentation I have ever seen about the Paleolithic era (the early Stone age). According to fossil evidence, the species Homo sapiens first appeared in Africa in 200,000 BC. They began migrating out of Africa around 100,000 BC. They reached southwest Asia and Europe by 90,000 BC, Australia by 50,000 BC, and Siberia and the New World by 15,000 BC.*

The most significant advances Homo sapiens made during the Paleolithic era stemmed from their unique ability to employ collective learning. This allowed the species to adapt, though a variety of ingenious technologies to two long ice ages that occurred prior to 10,000 BC.

According to Benjamin, Paleolithic humans lived through two major ice ages, one dating from 190,000 – 123,000 BP and one dating from 110,000 to 11,000 BP.  During each of these periods, ice covered 30% of planet Earth. Areas not covered by ice were dry deserts in which food was extremely scarce.

Paleolithic humans relied on collective foraging for food, using tools they invented and collective earning (garnered over generations) for digging, hunting, carrying and cooking food and collective learning garnered over generations. Like modern foragers, they lived in family groups of 10-50 people and assumed collective responsibility for governance and addressing wrongdoing. Elaborate gift giving rituals evolved to help solidify communities, with different family groups meeting together to exchange gifts, find mates, dance, play games.

Their skeletal remains suggest they were well nourished and were free from major epidemics. Their artwork suggests they had plenty of leisure time and viewed themselves as part of the natural world around them.

Their main impact on the environment was to drive all native mega fauna to extinction wherever they migrated. In Eurasia, large animals hunted to extinction included the mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros and the giant elk. In the Americas animals hunted to extinction included the prehistoric horse, the elephant, the giant armadillo and the giant sloth. In Australia, the arrival of human beings killed off giant kangaroos and other giant marsupial species.

Benjamin believes human migrants were also responsible for the demise of Homo neanderthalis.


*Some Native American scholars believe human beings reached North and South America by 30,000 BC.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy: https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/foraging-old-stone-age

The Stone Age: The Prehistoric Origins of European Peoples.

Secrets of the Stone Age

DW (2018)

Film Review

The main focus of this documentary is the massive stone monuments (eg Stonehenge) all human civilizations built between 6,000 and 2,000 BC and the steady migration of farming peoples from the Middle East to Western Europe during the same period.

In Part 1, archeologists explain how they use DNA and isotope analysis to trace the Middle Eastern origin of prehistoric human and cattle remains they find in Europe. Their findings reveal that following the 10,000 BC agricultural revolution, groups of farmers gradually migrated (by sea and overland) from northern Iran and Anatolia* as far west as the Europe’s western coast.

Large stone monoliths are found throughout the Mediterranean and along the west coast of continental Europe, Britain, Ireland and Scotland. These monoliths aren’t present where migrants traveled overland through the Balkans (where they lacked access large boulders). There’s growing evidence they built similar massive structures out of wood. The latter is more prone to decay.


*Anatolia is a large peninsula in northern Turkey.

Part 2 is mainly concerned with 7,000 BC stone edifices (used as homes, livestock pens, and tombs)recently  discovered in southwest Jordan. According to archeologists, these structures represent the oldest known “sedentary”* culture (the Ba’ja) in the world.

This episode also looks at research into the technologies used to transport and position stone monuments that could weigh as much as 130 tonnes. There is compelling evidence the stones were transported over water in massive sailing vessels and over flat inland distances with ramps and teams of oxen.

Fertility statues from this period, along with cultural artifacts found in Stone Age tombs, suggest men and women shared equal status during this period. Likewise forensic examination of skeletal remains reveals a total absence of warfare during this period.


*In cultural anthropology, sedentism refers to the practice of living in one area over and extended period – in contrast to hunter gatherers who were nomadic.

 

History of the World: BBC Version

Survival: History of the World Episode 1

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This informative eight-episode BBC series is framed as a history of the species Homo sapiens. In reality, it’s a gruesome history of Western imperialism, but I didn’t figure this out until Episode 7. Obviously aimed at a millenial audience, the melodramatic reenactments are too long and a bit nauseating (especially the really gory scenes depicting human sacrifice and torture).

Part 1 begins 70,000 years ago with the 1,000 fully evolved members of the homo sapiens species leaving Africa by crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. At this point in their development, they possess both language and weapons. Following the trails created by migrating herds, they head east towards India and South East Asia and north towards Europe. Some would reach Australia by 50,000 BC, Europe by 45,000 BC and North America (via the Bering Strait) by 15,000 BC (other non-BBC sources suggest they reached North America by 30,000 – 40,000 BC and were well in place by 15,000 BC).

In Europe, homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, a second species of human apes which migrated there (from Africa presumably?) around 150,000 BC. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis coexisted in Europe (and according to modern DNA analysis interbred) for between 5,000 – 10,000 years. The Neanderthals become extinct, around 30,000 BC, possibly because tools and language help Homo sapiens compete more successfully for limited game.

During the 27,000 – 16,000 BC ice age, most of Europe is covered with vast sheets of ice. As the climate begins to warm, homo sapiens hunter gatherers in the fertile crescent region of the Middle East learn how to domesticate plants and animals. This knowledge spreads north to Europe over the next 1,000 years. A parallel agricultural revolution also occurs in China, India and South America.

This new found ability to produce their own food leads nomadic hunter gatherers to begin settling in permanent towns and villages.

In cataloguing the earliest evidence of “civilized” society, the filmmakers start with 4,000 BC China, which had a population of about 2 million. Next they highlight the Minoan civilization in Crete around 3,700 BC. Estimated to number approximately 100,000, the Minoans produce aqueducts, multistory architecture, and bronze weapons and jewelry. They also engage in human sacrifice to appease gods who inflict earthquakes and volcanoes on them.

In 3,200 BC Egyptian civilization develops the first written language, which enables them to develop a legal system and the first recorded history.

Tracing Ancestry Via Mitochondrial DNA: A Patriarchal View

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry

by Bryan Sykes

W W Norton and Company (2002)

Book Review

This book is an account of geneticist Bryan Sykes’s discovery of the value of mitochondrial DNA in tracing the maternal lineage of all contemporary human beings to a few dozen cave women. Mitochondrial DNA is unique in that it’s only inherited from the egg (sperm discard their mitochondria once they penetrate the egg). It’s also far less genetically complex than nuclear DNA and only rarely undergoes mutation.

Sykes first used his discovery to establish that Polynesian navigators (including New Zealand Maori) originated from Taiwan or coastal China, and not south America, as claimed by Thor Heyerdahl. Heyerdahl came to public attention after piloting the balsa raft Kon-Tiki from the South American cost to the Tuamotu islands near Tahiti.

Sykes also used mitochondrial DNA to settle a longstanding debate over the origin of Europe’s agricultural revolution. The old view was that Europe’s hunter gatherers had been overwhelmed and displaced by an “invasion” of Middle Eastern farmers. Sykes’s genetic studies revealed otherwise – only about 17% of current Europeans carry typical Middle Eastern mitochondrial DNA. This suggests that Europe’s hunter gatherers gradually learned techniques for domesticating plants and animals from a small number of Middle Eastern farmers.

I had real problems with the final section of the book, in which Sykes fantasizes about each of the seven “daughters of Eve” (aka clan mothers) who are direct ancestors of nearly all people of European ancestry. His reconstructions depart significantly from existing anthropological studies of hunter gatherer societies – especially his portrayal of males heading households of nuclear families, his minimization of women’s roles in domesticating plants and most farm animals, and his heavy emphasis on hunting as the primary source of nutrition among hunter gatherers.

His premise that hunter gatherer females nursed 3-4 year old children every four hours (resulting in natural birth control) is just plain wrong. Although hunter gatherer females typically breast fed children for fours years or more, after age 12-18 months breast milk became a secondary source of found as young children shared shared the same solid food their parents ate.

See Patriarchy: An Anthropological Study and Patriarchy: The Crucial Role of Women’s Unpaid Labor Under Capitalism