Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

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By: Rasmus Kragh Jakobsen

A new study shows that the Mesopotamian farmers during a food crisis did not try to farm their land more intensively, but converted more land to arable land. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Ancient grain from the Middle East has given scientists an insight into how some of the world’s first cities developed.
Small, charred remains of grain that are at least 8,500 years old provide a fingerprint of ancient farming and how villages suddenly expanded over the course of a few hundred years into the large city states in ancient Mesopotamia—a historical area in present-day Syria and Iraq.
The grain can now reveal that as cities expanded and the need for food grew, so did the land dedicated to growing crops.
“It’s very exciting because until now the theory was that as the towns grew, they cultivated the land more intensively,” says archaeobotanist Mette Marie Hald from the National Museum of Denmark, who participated in the study.
“The study gives us an indirect indication of the political control of cities and how we imagine cities were established,” she says.
New knowledge on early city life
Arable farming made the cultivatable land valuable, and when land was inherited it could have laid the ground for a ruling elite of farmers and the beginnings of social inequality.
“It’s exciting and groundbreaking research, and the study strikes to the heart of many years of debate surrounding the economy and organisation of the early city societies,” says Tim Skuldbøl, archaeologist from the University of Copenhagen who also studies early urbanism but did not take part in the new study.
“Today, most people live in a city but don’t understand how they came about and why cities are organised the way they are. This archaeological research is important to understand the basic sociological building blocks that helped to form our urban societies today,” says Skuldbøl.
The study is published in the scientific journal, Nature Plants.
Villages shot up as settlement mounds
In the Khabur Valley in Northeast Syria, runs one of history’s most important rivers, the Euphrates. Together with the Tigris River, they define the region of Mesopotamia—which also means land between the rivers—where the world’s first civilisations emerged.
In the valley, archaeologists have found several ancient cities. One of them is Tell Brak, which was described by British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan in the 1930s.
At first glance, Tell Brak looks like a small hill, but preserved under the surface are houses built upon houses.
“They have torn down houses and built on top of the old foundations, so the occupation level has risen over thousands of years. Now, it’s 40 to 60 metres high and like a small mountain,” says Hald.
Food for 30,000 inhabitants
Among the remains, archaeologists have discovered temples, large administrative buildings, and even long sewage pipes. But how the city grew to be so big, was still a mystery.
Eight thousand years ago, arable farming was just beginning with grain fields of wheat and barley. At this time, animals, such as cows, goats, and sheep, were domesticated.
At this time, people lived in villages of perhaps 100 to 200 people, and then suddenly, some 6,000 years ago, over a period of a few centuries, these villages grew to cities of more than 10,000 inhabitants.
The development of arable farming, which provided food for all these people, is a key piece of the puzzle to understand how these cities grew so quickly.
Atomic physics meets archaeology
In recent years, archaeologists have obtained a new peep-hole that allows them to see back in time. Amazingly enough, packets of information have survived 8,000 years in the form of grain from burned down houses.
“It’s a bit mean, but when a house burns down, we archaeologists are really happy because then grains are burnt and don’t rot. They can lie in the earth for thousands of years,” says Hald.
Most of us think of fire as a frightful, destructive power, but grain is strong enough to survive and save its secrets.

Every little grain records a piece of history of the conditions under which it was cultivated, in the form of stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon.
Two routes to large towns
The scientists measured isotopes in 276 samples of grain discovered in Tell Brak and four other ancient cities in the northern region of Mesopotamia, dating to between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago: Tell Leilan, Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Zeidan, and Hamoukar.
They compared the analysis with modern samples from test fields in France, Spain, Morocco, and Denmark, where old varieties of grain are grown under controlled conditions with manuring and irrigation.
Together with the knowledge of ancient climate, scientists can estimate very precisely how much or how little manure or irrigation was used. By comparing this with the archaeological layer which the samples came from, they could follow the development of agricultural practices through time.
The bigger the cities became, the less manure they used, which is surprising as further south in Iraq, they used widespread irrigation and farmed the land very intensively.
But now they know that practices to the north were very different, which means that there were at least two ways in which cities could expand.
Farmers made their own choices about their grain
The differences are probably closely related to the climate: Not enough rain in the dry south requiring irrigation versus the wetter northern region requiring less work-intensive input, where food output was boosted by converting more of the landscape to fields.
The grains also held clues of the socio-economic system of the time, revealing who held power in these early cities.
“It’s interesting that we find large pots filled with different crops in private homes, and from the isotope values we can see that they had very different manuring levels, so they must have come from different fields,” says Hald.
“It shows us that individual households had different fields around the town, where some were manured and others weren’t,” she says.
In other words, the grain suggests that there was no centralised arable economy, but that each farmer made their own choices.
Large farmers had power
If a king or nobleman controlled the fields, then all of the harvest would probably be collected centrally and then distributed. In this case, archaeologists might expect to see more consistent isotope values in the grain found in various households.
“Later, we see massive grain stores, where the crops must have come in from all the fields and stored in these large rooms, and distributed among the population,” says Hald.
“So what we see here is an indirect indication of how a town became controlled, and it doesn’t look like there was a strong centralised power at this time, and the society—at least agriculturally speaking—is still rather egalitarian,” she says.
In later deposits, the archaeologists found remains of temples, large storerooms, and administrative buildings, which suggests a central power had developed from the early agribusiness.
So it appears that the development began with a collective of important farmers.
“The extensive agriculture paved the way for some powerful families. You can say roughly that instead of a central royal power, in terms of economy, these cities may have been controlled by a team of large families,” says Hald.


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Local and international experts have begun archaeological work on what is reputed to be one of the earliest agriculture-based villages in the UAE

Source: Archaeologists shed light on life in the UAE 5,000 years ago

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Excavations of architecture and associated deposits left by hunter-gatherers in the Black Desert in eastern Jordan have revealed bones from wild sheep — a species previously not identified in this area in the Late Pleistocene. According to the team of University of Copenhagen archaeologists, who led the excavations, the discovery is further evidence that the region often seen as a ‘marginal zone’ was capable of supporting a variety of resources, including a population of wild sheep, 14,500 years ago.

Source: Wild sheep grazed in the Black Desert 14,500 years ago

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14,000-year-old faba seeds contain clues to the timing of the plants’ domestication
[Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science]

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Like all food crops, the faba, or fava, bean — a nutritious part of many the diet of many cultures diets — had a wild ancestor. Wild faba is presumed to be extinct, but Weizmann Institute of Science researchers have now identified 14,000-year-old remains of seeds that offer important clues as to the time and place that this plant grew naturally. Understanding the ecology of the wild plants’ environment and the evolution they underwent in the course of domestication is crucial to improving the biodiversity of the modern crop. The findings were reported in Scientific Reports.

Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the “Timing of Cultural Changes” track of the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology, and Dr. Valentina Caracuta, a former postdoctoral fellow in Boaretto’s group who is currently a researcher at the University of Salento-Italy, had previously shown that the 10,200-year-old faba beans discovered in three archaeological sites in Lower Galilee were the earliest faba bean ever domesticated.

The new finding — faba seeds from an archaeological site, el-Wad, on Mount Carmel in Northern Israel — came from the earliest levels of an excavation that had been carried out by Profs. Mina Evron and Daniel Kaufman, and Dr. Reuven Yeshurun, all of Haifa University. The people living at that time, the Natufians, were hunter-gathers, and thus the plants there were growing wild. Boaretto and Caracuta performed radiocarbon dating and micro X-ray CT analysis on the preserved pieces of bean to pinpoint their age and identify them as the ancestors of the modern fava bean.

“Sometime between 11,000 and 14,000 years ago, people in this region domesticated faba — around the same time that others farther north were domesticating wheat and barley,” says Boaretto. Faba, a nutritious legume, is eaten around the world; in some places it is used for animal feed; and it fixes nitrogen in the soil. “Understanding how this plant was adapted to the habitat of the Carmel 14,000 years ago can help us understand how to create new modern varieties that will better be able to withstand pests and tolerate environmental stress,” she says.

This research is supported by by the Max Planck-Weizmann Center for Integrative Archaeology and Anthropology “Timing of Cultural Changes”; and the Exilarch Foundation for the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. The faba bean sample was dated at the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometer D-REAMS, Weizmann Institute of Science.

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world’s top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.

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Cereals were domesticated in Syria long before they appeared in Iraq or Iran.

Ancient plant remains suggest that the domestication of cereals, which led to the beginning of agriculture, appeared at different times in the Levant and in the eastern Fertile Crescent. Some countries, such as ancient-days Turkey, Iran and Iraq, saw Neolithic populations exploiting legumes, fruits and nuts long before they cultivated cereals.

Past studies have highlighted two main hypotheses to describe and explain the beginnings of plant domestication. In the 1990s, the belief was that domesticated plants had first appeared in Turkey, and that this was a rapid process that spread to the neighbouring regions in a short space of time.

In contrast, the recent dominant theory is that cereal domestication was a protracted process that developed all over the Middle East from 11,600 to 10,700 years ago. However, it remained unclear whether domestication happened at the same time in the different countries or if there was regional diversity.

In the new research, published in PNAS, researchers have tried to answer this question. They have shown that the cultivation of cereals during the Neolithic was only common in the southern-central Levant – such as in southern Syria. It took more time to arrive in other regions of the eastern Fertile Crescent – such as Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey.

Legumes rather cereals

The researchers started working at the archaeological Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa North in southern Syria. There, plant remains suggest that by 10,700 years ago cereals such as barley were being cultivated in important proportions. The study presents it as one of the earliest sites in the Middle East with evidence of morphologically domesticated wheat and barley.

But when the scientists from the University of the Basque Country and the University of Copenhagen looked at the evidence from sites located in the eastern Fertile Crescent, they found no evidence of similar practices at this time.

Their analysis suggests that domesticated-type cereals only appeared around 400 to 1,000 years later in Iraq, Iran and southern Turkey. Legumes, fruits and nuts likely dominated people’s diets until then.

“It was surprising to discover that despite being considered very important, and despite their dominant role in our agriculture, domesticated cereals might not have been so important in Neolithic times, in many regions” study author and archaeobotanist Amaia Arranz Otaegui told IBTimes UK.

“On most of the archaeological sites, researchers usually focus on cereal remains despite the archaeological often being quite poor. I would like to shift this focus and have us look at the record for other plants, because that may help us better understand ancient cultures and better characterise their agriculture”.

The study thus emphasises the need to re-assess the importance that scientists attribute to cereals such as wheat and barley and to investigate past exploitation of other plants such as lentils, beans and peas because they were potentially crucial to the diets of people living in the eastern Fertile Crescent more than 10,000 years ago.

The site of Tell Qarassa North where researchers found evidence of cereal domestication.Juan José Ibañez

The site of Tell Qarassa North where researchers found evidence of cereal domestication.Juan José Ibañez


Original Article:


By Léa Surugue December 5

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Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich

Right: Photograph during excavation exhibiting excellent dry preservation of plant remains Left: A well-preserved, desiccated barley grain found at Yoram Cave Credit: Uri Davidovich


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BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY—An international team of researchers has succeeded for the first time in sequencing the genome of Chalcolithic barley grains. This is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date. The 6,000-year-old seeds were retrieved from Yoram Cave in the southern cliff of Masada fortress in the Judean Desert in Israel, close to the Dead Sea. Genetically, the prehistoric barley is very similar to present-day barley grown in the Southern Levant, supporting the existing hypothesis of barley domestication having occurred in the Upper Jordan Valley.

Members of the research team are from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany; Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel; Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel; the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany; and the University of Haifa, Israel; The James Hutton Institute, UK; University of California, Santa Cruz, USA; University of Minnesota St. Paul, USA; University of Tübingen, Germany.

The analyzed grains, together with tens of thousands of other plant remains, were retrieved during a systematic archaeological excavation headed by Uri Davidovich, from the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Nimrod Marom, from Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, Israel. The archaeobotanical analysis was led by Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. The cave is very difficult to access and was used only for a short time by humans, some 6,000 years ago, probably as ephemeral refuge.

Oldest plant genome reconstructed to date

Most examination of archaeobotanical findings has been limited to the comparison of ancient and present-day specimens based on their morphology. Up to now, only prehistoric corn has been genetically reconstructed. In this research, the team succeeded in sequencing the complete genome of the 6,000-year-old barley grains. The results are now published in the online version of the journal Nature Genetics.

“These archaeological remains provided a unique opportunity for us to finally sequence a Chalcolithic plant genome. The genetic material has been well-preserved for several millennia due to the extreme dryness of the region,” explains Ehud Weiss, of Bar-Ilan University. In order to determine the age of the ancient seeds, the researchers split the grains and subjected half of them to radiocarbon dating while the other half was used to extract the ancient DNA. “For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past,” explains Johannes Krause, Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. The genome of Chalcolithic barley grains is the oldest plant genome to be reconstructed to date.

Domestication of barley completed very early

Wheat and barley were already grown 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, a sickle-shaped region stretching from present-day Iraq and Iran through Turkey and Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Up to this day, the wild forms of these two crops persist in the region and are among the major model species studied at the Institute of Evolution in the University of Haifa. “It was from there that grain farming originated and later spread to Europe, Asia and North Africa,” explains Tzion Fahima, of the University of Haifa.

“Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region,” explains Nils Stein, who directed the comparison of the ancient genome with modern genomes at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, with the support of Robbie Waugh and colleagues at the James Hutton Institute, Dundee, Scotland, and Gary Muehlbauer, University of Minnesota, USA. “This demonstrates that the domestication of barley in the Fertile Crescent was already well advanced very early.”

The comparison of the ancient seeds with wild forms from the region and with so-called ‘landraces’ (i.e., local barley lines grown by farmers in the Near East) enabled to geographically suggest, according to Tzion Fahima and his colleagues at the University of Haifa and Israel’s Tel-Hai College, “the origin of the domestication of barley within the Upper Jordan Valley – a hypothesis that is also supported by two archaeological sites in the surrounding area where the hitherto earliest remains of barley cultivation have been found.

Immigrants “trust” in extant landraces

Also the genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region is revealing to the researchers. “This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time,” says Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, the lead author of the study. The researchers therefore assume that conquerors and immigrants coming to the region did not bring their own crop seeds from their former homelands, but continued cultivating the locally adapted extant landraces.

New insights into the origins of our crop plants

Combining archaeology, archaeobotany, genetics and computational genomics in an interdisciplinary study has produced novel insights into the origins of our crop plants. “This is just the beginning of a new and exciting line of research,” predicts Verena Schuenemann, from Tuebingen University, the second lead author of the study. “DNA-analysis of archaeological remains of prehistoric plants will provide us with novel insights into the origin, domestication and spread of crop plants.”

Source: Bar-Ilan University news release.


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FOUNDING FARMERS  A bone fragment from a 7,000-year-old farmer was discovered in this cave in the Zagros region of Iran. His DNA and the DNA of three other individuals from a second Iranian site revealed that two different groups were involved in early farming.

FOUNDING FARMERS A bone fragment from a 7,000-year-old farmer was discovered in this cave in the Zagros region of Iran. His DNA and the DNA of three other individuals from a second Iranian site revealed that two different groups were involved in early farming.

Original Article:



Fertile Crescent cultures diverged to take farming east and west

The cradle of agricultural civilization was culturally diverse.

Two societies lived side-by-side 10,000 years ago in the rich Near Eastern valleys of the Fertile Crescent, where humans first learned to farm, a new study finds. Over time, one group expanded west, carrying agriculture into Europe. The other spread east, taking their traditions into South Asia, researchers report online July 14 in Science.

“We thought the people of the Fertile Crescent were one group genetically and culturally, but in fact they were probably two or more,” says paleogeneticist Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, who led the new study. It’s time to rethink the textbook idea that modern Europeans and South Asians descend from a single Stone Age people, he says.

Earlier this year, Burger’s team reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the first European farmers came from western Anatolia near the present site of Istanbul. Scientists suspected that the Anatolians had started out even further east, at older sites in Iran, Iraq, Syria and southeastern Turkey where farming began about 10,000 years ago.

But DNA from 7,000- to 10,000-year-old remains, found at two ancient Iranian settlements, told a different story. Carbon and nitrogen ratios in bones showed that the people there ate more cultivated cereals than meat. While they were farmers and had lived several thousand years before the Anatolians, genetic analysis showed that the two blood lines were not closely related.

In fact, the two groups had probably separated more than 45,000 years earlier, just after humans left Africa, says statistical geneticist Garrett Hellenthal of University College London, a coauthor of the new study. Even 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of Iranians and Anatolians had already been isolated for 36,000 to 67,000 years.

Evidence of the Anatolian farmers is a few thousand years younger than the Iranian remains, but both cultures “must have known each other to some extent,” Burger says.

People in the two groups probably looked different and spoke separate languages, Burger says. They didn’t intermarry, but undoubtedly shared the ideas of early agriculture. It would have taken centuries to convert from hunting and gathering to an agrarian way of life.

“Domestication of wild beasts is nothing you do over the weekend,” Burger says. And “you don’t invent something crazy and complicated like farming coincidently at the same time.”

Not everyone agrees with that conclusion. “The change from hunting to farming happened probably several times,” says archaeologist Roger Matthews of the University of Reading in England, who was not involved in the new work. While both the Anatolians and Iranians were farmers, “it’s not actually the same idea they’re coming up with,” he says. In the east, early agrarians focused on goats as well as barley and wheat, while in the west, shepherds raised sheep and other foods. Both communities probably took initial but separate steps toward farming, Matthews says.

Sometime after farming was developed, the two cultures began to move apart. Why they spread so differently is still a mystery. More DNA samples from ancient people east of the Fertile Crescent are necessary to confirm that people spread from Iran eastward, says anthropologist Christina Papageorgopoulou of the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece. She coauthored the Anatolian study but was not involved in the new work.

More DNA from within the Fertile Crescent could also reveal a border or boundary between ancient Anatolians and Iranians. “I cannot imagine there was a connection,” she says. If there had been, scientists would see have seen it in the DNA. “I think there is some kind of barrier there.”

At this point, scientists can speak broadly about the blood relationships between these early farmers, but more high-quality DNA samples would let researchers zoom in to the village or household scale, to “come closer to ancient humans and how they lived,” Burger says. His vision is to analyze whole Stone Age villages, to reconstruct ancient family trees, understand who migrated where and move “from a global to a village view.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated July 15, 2016, to correct two country labels on the map.

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