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Finding the First Farmers
A chance discovery on a Syrian hill opened a window on the origins of agriculture.

More than 20 years ago, archaeologist Andrew Moore, now an associate dean at the Graduate School and a lecturer in Near-Eastern Languages and Civilizations, was hiking over the top of what looked like a large hill near the banks of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. Preliminary investigations had indicated that Tell Abu Hureyra, as the hill was known, sheltered the remains of an ancient village, and Moore, then a 27-year-old graduate student at Oxford, had been recruited by the Syrian government to determine what secrets the site might hold.

Time was growing short. A major dam was nearing completion in the area, and within two years, no matter what Moore uncovered, Abu Hureyra would disappear under the waters of what was to become Lake Assad. “This was to be a salvage operation, nothing more,” recalls the archaeologist. “We were tearing our hair.”

The dig was given such urgency because of evidence just underfoot that the hill contained important artifacts. “Often when you walk across sites like this you kick up shards of pottery, but at Abu Hureyra, we were walking across a carpet of flint, which indicated the presence of flint tools,” says Moore.

Flint found in the absence of pottery, the crafting of which began in the region some 8,000 years ago, is a telltale sign of early Neolithic, or “new stone age,” settlements. The site’s obvious antiquity was especially intriguing to Moore, who was studying the origin and evolution of farming. And the age of the site—radiocarbon dating eventually established that it had been occupied from 11,500 to 7,000 years ago—meant that people had lived there during the period when humans in the Tigris-Euphrates area, the so-called “fertile crescent,” learned to cultivate plants and domesticate wild animals. Perhaps, thought Moore, Abu Hureyra might have something important to say about the development of agriculture.

Indeed, it did. The Abu Hureyra material, half of which is now deposited in Aleppo, Syria, with the remainder divided among nine museums in Europe and North America, continues to keep investigators busy, and their research to date has provided unprecedented insights into how humanity made the shift from hunting and gathering to farming. In addition, the ongoing research has enabled scientists to paint an unusually detailed picture of the Neolithic lifestyle, from burial practices and nutrition to family relationships and on-the-job injuries. The work also points to a solution for a puzzle that has long perplexed archaeologists: Why was farming invented in so many places throughout the Middle East—in fact, throughout the world—at about the same time?

Spurred by the impending flood, Moore, his colleagues from English, American, and Australian universities, and scores of Syrian workers in 1972 and 1973 meticulously analyzed the contents of seven trenches, the largest of which was 30 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 25 feet deep, that the researchers had dug into the tell, which was roughly one quarter mile long and 300 yards wide. Their efforts exposed the remains of a village, which consisted of a series of mud-brick houses built on the foundations of those that had been occupied by earlier inhabitants. Sorting the debris with sieves, the archaeologists discovered bones belonging to the villagers and the animals the Abu Hureyrans used for meat. There were ancient tools, such as arrow and axe heads, milling stones, and bone needles, along with the beads and granite carvings that adorned living and dead members of the settlement. Using a special device called a flotation machine, which can separate plant parts from dirt, the researchers were even able to determine, largely by looking at ancient seeds, the kinds of plants that were important to the villagers.

The material the team began to unearth quickly demonstrated that Abu Hureyra was an important site, but it was a chance discovery made at the end of the first digging season that was to establish the village’s reputation in archaeology. Moore was running one of the flotation machines as a skeleton crew continued to dig. Suddenly, the soil changed from sticky, brown clay—the remains of mud-brick homes—to a black, organically rich material filled with plant parts. Intrigued, the researcher started to look through the flint debris that had collected in the bottom of the machine. “The flint chips changed in character,” says Moore. “They got smaller—they were what we call microliths, which are characteristic of the older, Mesolithic period, the final stage of the time when people were hunters and gatherers.”

Clearly, a farming village had been built on top of a much earlier settlement, but what was the relationship between the two? Figuring this out might hold the key to understanding another old puzzle: how our ancestors made the transition from a free-ranging to a more sedentary—and civilized—lifestyle.

Accompanied by a bigger team, Moore returned to the site for a back-breaking second year. “It was a killer,” he explains. “We started in the blazing heat, and we finished in weather so cold that our shaving water froze. We were also digging when Israel and Syria went to war. In the end, we excavated only a tiny portion of the site, but we got the essentials we needed.”

Putting the story together has required an understanding of both the weather and human ingenuity. Geologists have determined that between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, the last of the ice ages ended, and cold and dry conditions in the Middle East gave way to a warmer and moister climate. Researchers believe that the improved weather triggered a population increase. Moore’s discovery of an early permanent settlement at Abu Hureyra shows that in at least one area, people also responded to better conditions by adopting a more settled lifestyle. Even though they remained in one place, however, they had not yet learned to farm. The seeds and bones found at the site, none of them belonging to domesticated plants and animals, show that the Abu Hureyrans depended for sustenance both on gathering the wide variety of plants that grew in the area and on hunting the local wildlife, particularly the Persian gazelle.

But around 11,000 years ago, the geological record shows, the cold returned with a vengeance. “This had a severe impact on people in the Middle East,” says Moore.

Finding enough food to feed a growing population must have become difficult since the change in climate caused dependable plants like the wild grains and the pistachio to diminish in abundance. Faced with hard times, the 150 or so people who lived in Abu Hureyra abandoned the little village. For the next several centuries, the place was a ghost town. From time to time, hunters may have camped at the site to take advantage of its proximity to the gazelle migration route, but there were too few plants available to support a permanent settlement. About 9,500 years ago, however, rain and relative warmth returned to Abu Hureyra. And with them returned year-round residents.

It is impossible to determine whether or not the returning villagers were relatives of the former inhabitants, but whatever brought the newcomers to the site—family ties, tales of abundant game, or the availability of fertile soil and ample water—they arrived armed with a revolutionary skill: the ability to grow food plants and raise animals.

Precisely who deserves the credit for these innovations will never be known. Most scientists believe that farming was “invented” almost simultaneously in several places in the fertile crescent region, but contrary to long-prevalent theories that agriculture arose and spread gradually, the evidence from Abu Hureyra paints a picture of an exceptionally rapid event. “The domestication of plants could have easily occurred in a single lifetime,” says Moore, pointing out that the considerable variety of seeds—scientists have identified more than 150 floral species—that have turned up in the earlier parts of the site means that people in the area had a superb knowledge of plant lore. They may have already practiced plant cultivation to some degree, and because there are only relatively minor genetic differences between the wild wheat and barley varieties the gatherers exploited and their domestic counterparts, “taming” those plants probably posed little difficulty to the first farmers.

But if the horticultural discoveries that enabled grains and vegetables to be grown rather than gathered took place in just a few spots, the explosive spread of the farming way of life came about because of an equally important innovation. “There was a communications revolution, with contact between villages and settlements, and trade in ideas and artifacts,” says Moore, noting that one indication of the existence of an early information superhighway is the sudden appearance throughout the region during the Mesolithic period both of a volcanic glass called obsidian, which is found naturally only in central Turkey, and of marine shells. “Farming offered a universal solution to a common set of problems in the region, and it had become easy for such knowledge to spread.”

And spread it did. Seeds, and the techniques to grow them, arrived from a wide variety of places. Emmer wheat originated in Palestine; einkorn wheat came from northern Syria. Chickpeas were first cultivated in southeastern Turkey, and barley domestication began in many places throughout the region. Within several hundred years, the world’s first agricultural revolution was complete.

Moore’s seed analysis shows that at Abu Hureyra, as elsewhere, the villagers quickly turned to planting crops and away from foraging for wild plants. While 150 or so species had been used in pre-farming days, the area’s farmers depended on a mere eight species, among them emmer, einkorn, oats, barley, chickpeas, and lentils.

Along with domesticating a tiny fraction of the native flora, the inhabitants of the area also tamed some of the animals, first sheep and goats and later, cattle and pigs. But intriguingly, unlike their rapid shift away from plant gathering, the Abu Hureyrans did not abandon their hunting lifestyle for more than a thousand years. The reason, says Moore, is simple. “The village was clearly sited to intercept the gazelle migration, and as long as the human population stayed relatively low, there were more than enough of the animals to go around,” the archaeologist explains. “The people there were not living hand to mouth.”

In fact, they lived quite well. An analysis of the human skeletons found at the site, most of which were buried under the floors of the mud-brick houses in which the villagers lived, showed that the average lifespan approached 60, “not much different,” says Moore, “from that of 19th century rural populations in Europe.”

This is surprising, because conditions in Abu Hureyra, particularly as its population swelled past several thousand, seemed tailor-made for epidemics of disease. Studies showed that their dwellings were exceedingly close together, and chemical analyses of the soil around each house indicate that trash and human waste were simply thrown out the nearest window or door. “Forget any sanitized view you might have of prehistory, this was awful,” notes Moore. “And yet, paradoxically, in this dunghill, the people were healthy.”

Perhaps it was because in sharp contrast to the public squalor of Abu Hureyra, the villagers kept the insides of their homes scrupulously clean. Or maybe the inhabitants owed their relative freedom from disease to a vigorous lifestyle. “We know that everyone worked extremely hard,” says Moore. “They had well-developed leg and arm muscles. It shows in the skeletons.” Muscles, of course, are attached to bones, and when the muscles grow larger as a result of physical activity, the bones show corresponding and characteristic changes, like increases in thickness and the appearance of buttresses for added support.

But if toil kept infections at bay, it also took its toll on the villagers' bodies. The diggers unearthed more than 150 skeletons, and when Theya Molleson, a member of Moore’s research team and a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, examined them, she discovered how a demanding lifestyle had been imprinted on the bones. For instance, the Abu Hureyrans ground grain on a stone mill called a saddle quern; this repetitive and energetic activity eventually caused malformations and arthritis of the spine, the legs, and the big toe, the latter a result of too much time spent working in a kneeling position. These particular injuries, incidentally, were found in both men and women, indicating that tasks were not yet divided up along strict gender lines.

There is, however, evidence of a different kind of specialization, which was something new in human history. Some of the teeth are grooved, and these marks are similar to those found in other parts of the world among native weavers who would thread canes through their teeth while making baskets. Researchers suspect that, at Abu Hureyra, some of the villagers were using this “technology” to make woven sieves that could separate small stones from grain kernels.

“With farming, we see a redistribution of activities and an entirely new way of life begin to take shape,” says Moore. “In a hunting and gathering society, you’re always pursuing food, but farming is marked by periods of intense labor coupled with times of relative leisure.”

Divorced from the need to constantly find enough to eat, the Abu Hureyrans evidently began to develop a more modern lifestyle, complete with the acquisition of material possessions and the time to enjoy them.

But the village’s good fortune didn’t last. First, the gazelles began to dwindle. “We see an extraordinary change that took place within the span of a human lifetime,” notes the archaeologist. From about the time the village was reoccupied to a point about 8,300 years ago, the researchers found that 80 percent of the animal bones they unearthed were those of gazelles, while 20 percent belonged to domestic species. Suddenly, the percentages reversed. Moore believes that the villagers were victims of their own success. “The human population increased, and the hunting pressure probably became too much for the gazelles,” he says.

At night, the elders, no doubt, regaled youngsters with tales of the vast herds that once covered the steppes surrounding the town—and fed the villagers. The children, no doubt, looked out at sheep and goats and found the old-timers' stories hard to believe.

The availability of domesticated animals made up for any losses in protein caused by the collapse of the gazelle population. But the weather was also changing, and the entire region was becoming drier and warmer. In addition, Moore’s studies show, the soil was deteriorating in quality, a result of overuse and overgrazing. Life went from easy to tough.

Seven thousand years ago, the villagers departed en masse. The desert buried Abu Hureyra, and there its story slept, until Andrew Moore and his colleagues teased a fascinating tale from old houses, parched seeds, and articulate bones.  the end


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