Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’



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Pigeons played a central role some 1,500 years ago in transforming the Byzantine Negev into a flourishing garden, according to a new study conducted at the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa and published Wednesday in the journal PlosOne.

The study, which focused on the ancient settlements of Shivta and Sa’adon, found archaeological evidence that the Byzantines in the Negev did not raise their pigeons for food, but to fertilize the dry loess soil and making it more suitable for intensive agriculture.

Loess is made up of fragment of geological detritus, formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust. But despite its lowly origins, loess tends to develop into very rich soils. Under appropriate climatic conditions, it forms some of the most agriculturally productive terrain in the world.

“The pigeon droppings are rich in phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, which are essential for agriculture and lacking in the loess soil of the Negev,” the researchers noted, adding that “the fact that the pigeon bones we found are much smaller than pigeons grown for meat, along with the nesting materials discovered in the trenches and the location of these within the agricultural fields, indicate that the pigeons were grown without significant human intervention, with people mainly providing them with protection.”

In recent years, a large-scale study has been conducted in the Byzantine Negev communities, led by Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa, in an attempt to understand, among other things, how the Byzantines managed to maintain an extensive farming system in the desert about 1,500 years ago, and what caused these thriving communities to be abandoned overnight.

In a study published several months ago, the research group presented significant archaeological evidence of the extent of agriculture in the Negev at the time, using the bones of a rodent (Marion), which lives only in more humid environments and is not found in desert.

Now, Dr. Nimrod Marom of the University of Haifa and Tel Hai College, together with Prof. Bar-Oz and Dr. Yotam Tepper of the Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa and Dr. Baruch Rosen of the Volcani Institute, are focusing on the study of the bones of pigeons found in coops in the agricultural areas near the Byzantine settlements.

According to the researchers, pigeon droppings are renowned to be a source of important minerals for agriculture, such as phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen, and in many areas of the world it was customary until recently to use them to improve and fertilize the soil. However, throughout history, pigeons have also been raised for meat. In order to determine main use of the pigeons in the Negev Byzantine colonies, the researchers examined the pigeon bones found in the coops, as well as the chemical composition of the droppings themselves.

The large amount of bones found in the excavations allowed the researchers to identify the average length of the wing, the body structure, and the characteristics of the skull of the pigeons from the Byzantine period, compared to the bones of pigeons of different races from modern times.

The work was based, among other things, on comparing the pigeons from the Negev to the pigeons collected and classified by the father of evolutionary theory Charles Darwin himself. Their bones are stored in the British Museum.

The researchers’ most important discovery was that the pigeons from the Byzantine period were small, muscular and “athletic,” and no different in size from Darwin’s wild pigeons. According to Dr. Marom, a smaller body size is not only a clear indication of the pigeons in question having less meat on their bones, but that they also had a faster metabolism. Simply put: smaller ions produce more guano relative to the food they consume.

The chemical tests conducted in the laboratory showed that the droppings are indeed rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

“In addition to this fact, the coops’ location, in an agricultural area and away from the settlements, strengthens the hypothesis that the pigeons were grown in the coops to produce high quality manure intended to improve the loess soil of the desert,” the researchers concluded.

“The pigeons from Shivta could fly freely and get their food themselves, the guano that was collected on the floor of the coops was used to fertilize fruit trees and vines in the local vineyards and orchards. In addition, we discovered inside the coops a rich botanical finding that included vines, dates, olives, peaches and a variety of wild plants, all scraps of food the pigeons ate,” they added, suggesting “this is additional evidence that the Negev in the Byzantine period was green and blooming.”

 Photo credit: University of Haifa










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December 27, 2017 by Natalie Munro

Hilazon Tachtit cave. Credit: Naftali Hilger, CC BY-NC-ND


This holiday season millions of families will come together to celebrate their respective festivals and engage in myriad rituals. These may include exchanging gifts, singing songs, giving thanks, and most importantly, preparing and consuming the holiday feast.

Archaeological evidence shows that such communally shared meals have long been vital components of human rituals. My colleague Leore Grosman and I discovered the earliest evidence of a ritual feast at a 12,000-year-old archaeological site in northern Israel and learned how feasts came to be integral components of modern-day practice.

First, what are rituals?

Rituals involve meaningful, often repeated actions. In modern-day practices they are expressed through rites such as the hooding of a doctoral student, birthdays, weddings or even sipping wine at Holy Communion or lighting Hanukkah candles.

Ritual practice may have emerged along with other early modern human behaviors more than 100,000 years ago. However, proving this with material evidence is a challenge. For example, researchers have found that both Neanderthals and early modern humans buried their dead, but scholars weren’t certain whether this was for spiritual or symbolic reasons and not for something more mundane like maintaining site hygiene. Likewise, the discovery of 100,000-year-old symbolic artifacts like pierced shell ornaments and decorated chunks of red ochre in caves in South Africa, was not sufficient to prove that they were part of any ritual activities.

It was only when archaeologists found these artifacts, placed in graves going back 40,000-20,000 years, that it was confirmed they were part of ritual practice.

The first feasts

We had a similar experience during our research. When Leore Grosman and I first embarked on the excavations at Hilazon Tachtit in the late 1990s, we were only hoping to document the activities of the last hunter-gatherers in Israel, at what appeared to be a small campsite. It was only over several seasons of excavation that it slowly became clear to us that this was not a site where people had lived. Rather it was a site for rituals.

No houses, fireplaces or cooking areas were recovered. Instead the cave yielded the skeletal remains of at least 28 individuals interred in three pits and two small structures.

One of these structures contained the complete skeleton of an older woman, who we interpreted as a shaman based on her special treatment at death. Her grave stood apart due to its fine construction – the walls were plastered with clay and inset with flat stone slabs. Even more remarkable was the eclectic array of animal body parts buried alongside of her. The pelvis of a leopard, the wing tip of an eagle, the skulls of two martens and many other unusual body parts surrounded her skeleton.

The butchered remnants of more than 90 tortoises buried in the grave and the leftovers of at least three wild cattle deposited in a second adjacent depression excavated in the cave floor represent the remains of a funeral feast.

The outstanding preservation of the grave enabled us to detect multiple phases of a ritual performance that included the consumption of the feast, the burial of the woman, and the filling of the grave in several stages, including the intentional deposition of garbage from the feast.

Site of Göbekli Tepe. Credit: Teomancimit (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Feasting at the beginning of agriculture

Archaeologists have found other sites that show evidence of ritual feasting. Many of these date to the time when humans were beginning to farm.

One of the most striking is the site of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey, dating slightly later than Hilazon Tachtit. It includes multiple large structures adorned with benches and giant stone slab carved with exquisite animal depictions in relief dating to 11-12,000 years ago. Perhaps, these were very early communal buildings. The archaeologists who excavated Göbekli Tepe argue that massive quantities of animal bones associated with the structures represent the remains of feasts.

Twelve thousand years ago humans were still hunter-gatherers, subsisting entirely on wild foods. Nevertheless, these people differed from those who went before – they were sitting on the brink of the transition to agriculture, one of the most significant economic, social and ideological transformations in human history.

Sickle blades and grinding stones used to harvest and process cereal grains are found at Hilazon Tachtit and other contemporary archaeological sites. These findings indicate that these ritual feasts started around the same time that people adopted agriculture. When people began to rely more heavily on wild cereals like wheat and barley, they became increasingly tethered to landscapes that were ever more crowded and began to settle into more permanent communities. In other words, feasting became a part of their life, once they moved away from nomadic life.

Rituals that bind

These feasts had an important role to play. Adapting to village life after hundreds of millennia on the move was no simple act. Research on modern hunter-gatherer societies shows that closer contact between neighbors dramatically increased social tensions. New solutions to avoid and repair conflict were critical.

The simultaneous appearance of feasting, communal structures and specialized ritual sites suggest that humans were seeking to solve this problem by engaging the community in ritual practice.

One of the central functions of ritual in these communities was to provide a kind of social glue that bound community members by promoting social cohesion and solidarity. Feasts generate loyalty and commitment to the community’s success. Sharing food is intimate and it builds trust.

Communal rituals would have provided a shared sense of identity at a time when social circles were increasing in scale and permanence. They reinforced new ideologies that emerged out of a dramatic reorganization of economic and social life.

Role of feasts today

Feasting plays the same essential role today. Like the earliest feasts, our holiday celebrations are replete with actions that are repeated year after year.

The holiday feast today builds family traditions. By cooking and sharing food together, telling stories of past holidays and exchanging intergenerational wisdom, holiday rituals bond extended families and give them a shared identity.

Explore further: Reconstruction of 12,000 year old funeral feast brings ancient burial rituals to life

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IMAGE: Professor Elisabetta Boaretto and Dr. Tobias Richter. In the foreground is a Natufian hearth at Shubayqa, Jordan. 
Credit: The Weizmann Institute of Science


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Public Release:
New dates for a 15,000-year-old site in Jordan challenge some prevailing assumptions about the beginnings of permanent settlement
Weizmann Institute of Science

Around 15,000 years ago, the Natufian culture appeared in what is today’s Middle East. This culture, which straddled the border between nomadic and settled lifestyles, had diverse, complex origins – much more than researchers have assumed. This finding arises from new research by a team of scientists and archaeologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science and the University of Copenhagen.
The hunter-gatherers of the Natufian culture were spread over modern-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria around 14,500 – 11,500 years ago. They were some of the first people to build permanent houses and tend to edible plants. These innovations were most likely crucial to the subsequent emergence of agriculture during the Neolithic era. Previous research had suggested that the center of this culture was the Mount Carmel and Galilee region, and that it had spread from there to other parts of the region. The new study by the Copenhagen-Weizmann team, published in Scientific Reports, challenges this “core region” theory.
The new paper is based on evidence from a Natufian site located in Jordan, some 150 km northeast of Amman. The site, called Shubayqa 1, was excavated by a University of Copenhagen team led by Dr. Tobias Richter from 2012-2015. The excavations uncovered a well-preserved Natufian site, which included, among other things, a large assemblage of charred plant remains. These kinds of botanical remains, which are rare in many Natufian sites in the region, enabled the Weizmann-Copenhagen team to obtain the largest number of dates for any Natufian site yet in Israel or Jordan. The dating was undertaken by Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute of Science using Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, or AMS, dating. Boaretto is head of the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (D-REAMS) lab in the Weizmann Institute. This is one of the few labs in the world that works with the technology and methods that can analyze even the smallest organic remains from a site and precisely date them. With the lab’s specially designed mass spectrometer, Boaretto is able to reveal the amount of carbon-14 in a sample down to the single atom. Based on the half-life of the radioactive carbon-14 atoms, the dating done in her lab is accurate to around 50 years, plus or minus. To ensure the highest accuracy, the team selected only samples from short-lived plant species or their parts – for example, seeds or twigs – to obtain the dates.
Over twenty samples from different layers of the site were dated, making it one of the best and most accurately dated Natufian sites anywhere. The dates showed, among other things, that the site was first settled not long after the earliest dates obtained for northern Israel. Either Natufians expanded very rapidly into the region (which is the less-likely explanation), or the settlement patterns emerged more or less simultaneously in different parts of the region.
“The early date of Shubayqa 1 shows that Natufian hunter-gatherers were more versatile than previously thought. Past research had linked the emergence of Natufian culture to the rich habitat of the Mediterranean woodland zone. But the early dates from Shubayqa show that these late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers were also able to live quite comfortably in more open parkland steppe zones further east,” says Richter. Some of their subsistence appears to have relied heavily on the exploitation of club rush tubers, as well as other wild plants and the hunting of birds, gazelle and other animals.
These new dates do not always jibe with the idea that climate change was the main driver of abandonment or resettlement, although it clearly played a role.
Boaretto says that the “core area” theory may have come about, in part, because the Mt. Carmel sites have been the best preserved and studied, until now. In addition to calling into question the idea of the Natufian beginning in one settlement and spreading outwards, the study suggests that the hunter-gatherers who lived 15,000 to 12,000 years ago were ingenious and resourceful. They learned to make use of numerous plants and animals where ever they were, and to tend them in a way that led to early settlement. The authors say that this supports a view in which there were many pathways to agriculture and “the ‘Neolithic way of life’ was a highly variable and complex process that cannot be explained on the basis of single-cause models.”
Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto’s research is supprted by the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science, which she heads; and the Dangoor Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Laboratory.
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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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]

Original article:


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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