What was the Origins of Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent Like? (2004)

How did domestication happened in the Fertile Crescent – (this may be how it started any comments constructive welcome. Understanding in this area is continuing to evolving)

Supposing you were a hunter gatherer living about 14,000 years ago in Syria, hunting animals and gathering plants across the grassy steppes with a scatter of almond and terebinth trees (Pistacia terebinthus). Then you move to a fertile valley with plenty of food all year round and a source of water – maybe a stream or spring – better than anything else for miles around. Would you move on or would you be tempted to set up a more permanent camp? Now you are settled you don’t have to worry about the number of small children you have to carry around before they can walk and your family is a lot larger now your settlement is made up of small groups, related by kinship. You can collect seeds from the wild grasses, legumes and other plants in the land near to your camp, in fact you can quite easily collect a ton of seed – all you need for your family for the whole year – just by beating these seeds into the basket. You store the seeds in special containers outside or inside your round huts. You have a very varied diet including over a hundred species of seed foods harvested in due season. Traveling further a field up the hill slopes you can gather grains from later flowering grasses, immature fruit from wild almonds, green leafy wild plants, some of the bulbs and almonds – which taste good when roasted on an open fire. You also travel down the stream beyond the riverine forest, where you harvest cats tails and the edible roots of club rush from the marshland. You are constantly aware of the changing seasons – it is autumn now and the trees in the woodland at the edge of your grassy valley are normally laden with acorns. It is time for the annual trip to gather the acorns from the woods. Most of your small settlement trek to the woods carrying collecting bags. You set up temporary camp and harvest and process the acorns to gather the carbohydrate rich acorn flour which you can bring back to the camp for winter storage. On the way back you gather wild grapes and pear-shaped fruit from the Azarole or Mediterranean Medlar trees (Crataegus azarolus) which dot the landscape.

Those were the days when there were plenty of wild plants around, but now the weather is a lot colder and drier and many of the wild species you used to collect have disappeared. Gradually the diversity of foods decreased, with the most drought sensitive plants (in the park woodland) disappearing first. This eventually left only the most drought resistant plants, such as the wild cereals. Even some of the wild wheat you used to gather has become scarce. Near the camp is steeply sloping hill bank and you have noticed that where the bank flattens out and retains more water, the scrub and grass flourish. Times are so tough maybe you could encourage your favourite grass seeds to grow if you could scatter them on the land that was still damp. You have planted some favourite fruit trees near your camp before on small areas of bare land but this is a larger task and you decide to clear some of the scrub. The seeds of your wild grasses, planted with the help of your digging stick, flourish on the moist soil of the cleared piece of land. It is now harvest time and you cut all the ears with sickles – you are far more conscious about losing ears of the grass especially having spent time and effort clearing the land and sowing the seeds, far more than in the old days when you were just harvesting the grass that grew by itself.

Generations have passed; you have started to notice some of the cereals don’t loose their seeds anymore when you harvest their ripe seed heads. (This natural mutation controlled by a single gene arose in wheat, barley, rye and a similar mutation also arose also in the domestication of rice.) You make efforts to save the ears of grain that don’t fall apart for re-sowing , you also start to choose the ears with larger seeds for planting next year.

Post script

I was inspired to be a time traveler and try to understand what was in the mind of communities at the onset of the agricultural revolution by a series of events.  The lyrical descriptions of what a hunter gatherers and early agriculturalists life might be like described by Gordon Hillman,  Honorary Visiting Professor in Archaeobotany at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London (1) .  Another influence was  a highly readable book called “A Quest for Food – Its Role in Human Evolution and Migration” written by Ivan Crowe (2) that considers the past development  of human ingenuity to survive in different parts of the world.  I was further intrigued when visited the archaeobotanist George Wilcox in France (3) and saw replicas of fine bowls carved from stone dating from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period which came from an ancient site in Northern Syria. The stone dishes were smooth except for scratched drawings on them that included that of a poleaxed body (an example of this was found on the site of the dig).  The other intriguing artifacts found here were a series of skulls with chequer board red and white plaster faces and cowrie shells for eyes.  It is impossible for us to comprehend what they were thinking on a daily basis as these finds predate writing.

Studies indicate that the change from wild to domesticated crops cultivated happened gradually in the Fertile Crescent over around 1,500 years.  To me this may suggest that early farmers didn’t rapidly realize the significance of domesticated crop plants that didn’t shed their seed – more that there was a gradual survival advantage for domesticated non shattering seeds heads.  May be over the years they were the seeds that stayed intact when taken from the field to be threshed and didn’t fall by the way side.  Some recent reports suggest a much more wide-spread mosaic pattern for the adoption some of the farming techniques through the Fertile Crescent, but it was only later that the whole ‘farming package’ of crops and animals came together.  Did settlements resort to this change independently – or did settlement to settlement cowrie or obsidian salesmen spread the word?  Was this due to pressure of population growth or external environmental factors?   it appears likely that the change to agriculture may have been a little later than the cold dry period (The Younger Dryas).

There may well be errors or generalizations in this piece – however it is published to provoke responses to understand a little more about what the people living through these changing times may have thought about.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Hillman                                                                     (2) http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Quest-Food-Evolution-Migration/dp/0752414623       (3) http://g.willcox.pagesperso-orange.fr

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013
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About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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