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The Neolithic transition and the beginnings of urban culture
‘The agricultural revolution is not an event like the Trojan War, isolated in the distant past and without relevance to your lives today. The work begun by those Neolithic farmers in the Near East has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It's the foundation of your vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the very first farming village.’
DANIEL QUINN. ISMAEL: AN ADVENTURE OF MIND AND SPIRIT
THE VILLAGE BY THE LAKE
Around 20,000 years ago, a fire started in a village on the shore of Lake Tiberius. Within minutes it had destroyed the brushwood huts and left six smoldering rings of charcoal where the village had been. If there were people living here at the time of the fire, they moved on; and within a few years, the rising water of the lake covered the site in a deep layer of silt.
In the autumn of 1989, after a drought that saw the water recede by some 10 meters, archaeologists found the remains of these houses in the exposed mud of the shore. Working quickly before the lake submerged the dig, they reconstructed a picture of life in one of the world’s first settled communities.
Towards the end of the last ice age, a band of nomadic hunter-gatherers arrived on the beach of the newly formed lake. Rather than moving on, they settled down to forage and fish and hunt, raising their children and burying their dead here at the water’s edge. They cooked on fire pits outside, knapped flint into sharp blades, and threw discarded shells and bones into a dumping ground.
One of the huts contained over 90,000 seeds, including many species of wild wheat and barley, as well as fruits which may have been dried in the sun and stored for the winter. There was also a heavy grinding stone set into the floor and surrounded by grain, as though someone – perhaps the mother of the family - had been making flour not long before the fire started.
THE NATUFIAN HOMELAND
At the time of Ohalo II, as the village is known to archaeologists, other groups of people were starting to settle in the Jordan Valley, as well as in the hills to the west, along the Mediterranean coast, and even in the semi-desert steppe to the east.
There were forests of oak and pistachio trees on these slopes, dense grasslands and freshwater lakes in the valley. Gazelle and wild cattle grazed across the savannah. In the rivers and reed beds, men trapped ducks, gathered eggs, and caught catfish with their bare hands. The land was so abundant that there was simply no need to move on.
By about 13,000 years ago a distinct settled culture, known as Natufian, had emerged in the Jordan Rift Valley and the surrounding hills. Its people built homes with stone floors, sunk into the earth and roofed with wood and brush. They cooked on hearths inside their houses, and stored food in baskets and animal skins. They made blades from flint and obsidian, hunted with bows and arrows, and carved bone into awls and barbed hooks.
They also crafted objects that seem to have had a ritual or totemic rather than a functional value. In the village of Nahal Oren, on the Mediterranean coast, someone carved a limestone figurine with an owl at one end and a dog’s head at the other. Human figures are rare in Natufian art, but in the Wadi Khareitoun near Bethlehem, a Bedouin man found an 11,000 year old carving of a human couple making love. The Ain Sakhri lovers, as they came to be known, are now in the British Museum.
Analysis of Natufian grindstones has found that they were used to powder red ochre as well as grain, which suggests that these people may have painted their skin. They certainly wore jewelry, and decorated the bodies of their dead. In Natufian cemeteries across the Levant, archaeologists have found necklaces and belts, earrings and bracelets made from bones and shell and animal teeth. At the village of Ain Mallaha, just north of Lake Tiberius, a woman was buried with her hand on the body of a puppy.
The first settled families had no knowledge of farming, but they found stands of wild wheat and barley so dense and extensive that they began to harvest and store grain against the lean months of winter. They carried sickles of bone or wood, with flint blades set into the handle, and ground the seed to flour in stone mortars. In all probability, they made bread and baked it directly in the hot sand and ash of the fire.
The idea that the Natufians were the world’s first farmers remains controversial. But if they were not yet cultivating grain, they were certainly on the cusp of that breakthrough.
OVER THE THRESHOLD
Around 11,000 years ago the climate of the eastern Mediterranean began to change. For an interval of around 700 years drought came often to the valley, testing the resilience of the families who lived here. Some of them moved on, reverting to the old ways and following the animals north. Others, searching for ways to wrest the calories they needed from the earth around them, began to scatter seeds of wild wheat and barley onto the fertile soil of the plain.
In retrospect, we can see that farming was the most significant advance ever made by humans – the first link in the chain of social and technological changes that brought our own civilization into being. But there was no sudden break with the past, and no single generation that stepped over the threshold that separates hunter-gatherers from settled agriculturalists. The first men and women to plant cereal still foraged for edible plants and roots, and still hunted gazelle and ibex as their ancestors had always done.
Slowly, though, over a period of several hundred years, they came to depend more on the food that they had grown and less on the food that they had killed or gathered in the wild. They learned which seeds would yield a harvest, and where best to plant them. At some stage they began to water the seedlings, helping their crops through the dry months of summer.
Without knowing it, these people were causing genetic modifications to the cereals they farmed. As they gathered wild barley or emmer wheat, they naturally looked for the plants with the fattest, heaviest grains. As they grasped and hacked at the stalks with flint sickles, the more brittle plants scattered the seed, leaving only the grains that were more firmly attached to the plants to be gathered up and sown again the following spring. The process of farming quickened the pace of evolution by selecting for those mutations – bigger, denser, stronger seeds – that were dominant in the seeds sown by Neolithic people.
As the techniques of farming improved and the modified seeds began to yield a more dependable harvest, and as the rains returned to the hills after centuries of drought, the villages of the Jordan River Valley were able to feed a growing population. Before long, they were able to store a surplus and, for the first time in human history, to feed people who were not farmers or hunters at all.
THE WALL OF JERICHO
Jericho was among the first places on earth where this transition took place.
It was not the only farming community in the world at that date. The earliest domestication of wild cereal probably took place to the north of here, in the Karacadag mountains of Turkey, or in the Euphrates valley around the Syrian site of Tell Abu Hureyra. And there were surely other early farming villages, still unknown to archaeologists, scattered across the Levant.
At the beginning of the Neolithic era people had already been living around Jericho’s spring for centuries. Slowly, this crude encampment of brushwood huts was transformed into one of the world’s first real villages.
And then, around 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic farmers of Jericho did something absolutely unprecedented: they raised a massive stone wall around the town.
Built from stones hauled from the banks of the Jordan River more than a mile away, this wall was 4 – 5 meters high and surrounded by a deep ditch. It included a tower almost 9m tall, with an internal staircase of 22 stone steps.
Within the wall, the people of Jericho lived in circular houses made from mud brick and plaster. Inside their homes there were fire pits for cooking, and stone querns for grinding flour. If they were making bread, they may also have been fermenting grain and drinking beer. There was no pottery, but they kept seeds and pulses in baskets and skins, or in silos made from mud and straw. They stored tools here, too; spears and nets for fishing in the river, flint-tipped arrows, and sickles for reaping the fields. From the loom weights we know there were weavers among them, though the textiles made in Neolithic Jericho have all perished.
Along with the tools of everyday life, some kept more precious objects in their homes: blades made from obsidian, a glassy volcanic rock from the Anatolian mountains, and cowrie shells from the Red Sea, and pieces of turquoise from the Sinai. They must have bartered for these things with the salt and bitumen that were so abundant in their own territory, along trade routes that followed the north-south contour of the Rift Valley.
It may have been to protect of this slow accumulation of wealth that the wall was built. Kathleen Kenyon, the British archaeologist who excavated here in the 1950s, certainly thought so. Later archaeologists have suggested that it was raised to protect Jericho’s mud brick homes against floods rather than against raids, or even that the tower may have had a religious function.
Whatever its purpose, the scale and sophistication of this project displays a degree of confidence and collaboration had never been seen before. At this date, the world was still a wilderness populated mainly by tribes of hunting and foraging nomads. As they looked down on the walled city in the plain, they must have stared in wonder.
MUD, STRAW, AND CIVILIZATION
We may never know exactly why the wall was built, but we can be sure that it was made possible by the humble mud and straw granaries that stood in the homes of Neolithic Jericho.
Inside those granaries was the stored energy of Jericho’s men and women - energy that could be used to support specialized workers and to power the beginnings of urban civilization. In a pattern established here and repeated all over the world, the agricultural revolution was followed quickly by the growth of professional classes – artisans and merchants, engineers and priests – and by the emergence of ruling elites.
In Jericho’s obsidian blades and turquoise beads, we glimpse the beginnings of long distance trade and perhaps the birth of a merchant class. In the wall itself we see the beginnings of social hierarchy and organized government – someone must have designed this structure, and someone must have mobilized the hundreds of laborers who hauled and stacked the stone.
After around 7000 BCE, when Jericho was rebuilt after a period of abandonment, the pace of change quickens. The round huts of the earlier settlement give way to rectangular mud brick houses, some built around courtyards and including as many as three rooms. These houses have stone foundations and pink terrazzo floors rendered in lime plaster, and may have been furnished with woven kilim rugs similar to thosefound across the region today.
Under the floors were burials, including a cache of ten human skulls plastered and painted, with cowrie shells set into the eyes. They are the first examples of portraiture in human art, and hint at an elaborate religious cosmology that was probably regulated by a professional caste of priests or shamans.
In settlements throughout the fertile crescent, farmers were digging wells or cisterns to store the rain and cutting water channels into the earth. Irrigated fields probably indicate private property, which in turn implies that some system of arbitration, law, and government was developing.
The farmers’ need to measure and anticipate the pattern of the seasons led to the close observation of the stars and planets – a behavior which would eventually lead to the development of astronomy and mathematics, and the making of the world’s first calendars. Seasonal harvests also forced improvements in the storage of food, and before long we see the beginnings of pottery in the Jordan Valley. By around 6000 BCE, the potter’s wheel was in use here.
THE CIVILIZED AND THE WILD
On the printed page, this looks like a cascade of technological innovation and social change. In reality, it was a steady and incremental series of developments that took place over many millennia, punctuated by periods of collapse or even regression.
But however slow it was, the pattern of progress is clear. By 3800 BCE we see villages in the Jordan River Valley whose household goods and rhythms of life would be familiar to today’s old people – villages like Tulaylat al Ghassul, across the plain from Auja, where men and women grew vines and olives almost 6000 years ago, tended vegetable gardens, stored wine and oil in earthenware jars, and shepherded goats across the hills.
By the Bronze Age, Jericho itself was developing into a prosperous walled city, trading with the other early Canaanite towns of the Levant – Nablus, Megiddo, Arad – as well as with the emerging urban centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Among these was Uruk, on the banks of the Euphrates in modern day Iraq, which by 2900 BCE was probably home to more than 50,000 people. This population included mathematicians and astronomers, accountants and scribes. There were monumental stone temples within the city walls, and wheeled chariots in the streets.
By that time, Jericho was a backwater compared to the civilizations of the Sumer or Egypt. But if the origins of the modern world can be traced back to any particular point, it is to the Jordan River Valley and a handful of sites across the Levant where Neolithic men and women first scattered seed into the mud.
And if we look for the earliest beginnings of civilization – for the very idea of urban space, set apart from the wilderness of the natural world – we find it here, in the wall that enclosed the town of Jericho.