Monday, July 16, 2012

The Earliest Farmers

By the end of the last ice age, around 8000 BC, humans were experiencing a drastic change in their environment. Some would refer to this time period as either the Mesolithic period, meso is the Greek word for "middle" and lithos meaning "stone"; or perhaps more appropriately as the Epipaleolithic period, which translates loosely as "final upper paleolithic" period. It was a time when "human civilizations that were affected by the ice age were retooling to deal with the environmental changes that were occurring. As a species, the ice age defined human nature and its behaviors. In many parts of the world there actually wasn't any "ice or snow to speak of", but the environment during the 100,000 year stretch had been quite arid and temperatures had been much cooler.

Essentially it was a time of great upheaval for humanity, especially for those who were close to the areas affected by the change in climate. Changes in climate meant changes in the herds that were hunted for food. Everything changed on the Earth, arid areas became more tropical and colder areas became much more temperate. The world was becoming more hospitable and the herds were moving greater distances away from their traditional migration routes. As a result, humans had to extend their own ranges and follow them. This middle Stone Age period found humans "modernizing" their tools and gaining access to regions of better qualities of tool making materials.

The Holocene hadn't quite begun, but the environment was changing and warming quickly. Human civilizations were widely nomadic and still in a pre-agricultural period. "Crops" to them, were essentially based on foraging the natural supply in a changing ecosystem. As these references of time overlap for different areas, it becomes more important to utilize the identification of tools and their usages in order to better distinguish between periods. With advances in radiocarbon dating the periods have become more clarified. The industrialization of special tools was becoming prevalent, and by 20,000 to 12,500 BCE the climates and environments had pushed humans into a period of great transition.

It was during this time that humans began producing small fine tools referred to as "microliths". They included small spear tips and edged "bladelets"s for skinning game more efficiently. As the end of the early Mesolithic time drew to a close, the people began to develop new patterns of behavior in adaptation to the changes in their environment. As herds were becoming hunted more efficiently, the small populations began to blossom, but large groups made it difficult to continue to chase animals that were migrating further north each year. The lands between Anatolia and Egypt were particularly affected by this change and the peoples there began to make drastic alterations to their lifestyles.

Some of the peoples in this area, who were the first to form settlements and begin the "farming" of primitive grains, were the Natufians. The earliest recorded agricultural settlements were the Natufians, who around 11,140 BCE settled an area near the Euphrates River. This area is today in modern Syria. This civilization existed from approximately 12500 to 9500 BCE, close to the end of the Pleistocene period. They are believed to have been the first farmers of cereals such as einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and two varieties of rye. They also hunted gazelle, onager, sheep, and smaller animals such as hare, fox and birds. Many of their subsistence foods were gathered from what could be referred to as "wild gardens", which they regularly reseeded, and it this activity that possibly led to the practice of farming.

Two distinct settlements were discovered in the area, one was founded in the Epipalaeolithic period, and the other during the Neolithic period. Because of this bridge in epochs, the Natufians provide one of the only true examples of a culture migrating away from its nomadic hunting grounds and beginning to settle into a "homeland". Many small round huts were found, and these had been "cut into" the soft sandstone of the area. The roofs were likely supported with wooden posts, but of course none have been found since wood objects do not typically last more than a hundred years. The huts were roofed with brushwood and reeds, and contained underground storage areas for food. The population of this area was fairly small and at most could only have housed a few hundred people.

These nomads turned 'would be farmer' civilizations, have left stone and bone tools and buildings behind to tell of their civilization. As well as the bladelets and scrapers, grinding stones have also been discovered, proving the increased development and advancing tool uses of this people. Unlike the peoples of the Early Mesolithic Period, who left little more than a few stone tools, the Natufians left artifacts that prove they were evolving into an early civilization. They were not only able to exist in a changing climate, but they thrived and possibly passed on their knowledge of the discovery of farming and agriculture to other nomadic groups, that would carry this technology north into the newly unsettled lands thawing from an ice age.

The original settlement was abandoned during a re-glaciation period which lasted approximately 1000 years. The ensuing drought displaced livestock migration, including their staple animal the gazelle; as well all of the wild gardens and plants which they were subsisting on would have died off. It was during this short return of a small ice age that probably caused the Natufians to return to their old nomadic practices, and leave the area. Approximately 9000 BCE the "small ice age" receded and a new Neolithic settlement was re-founded in the same area. The new settlement seemingly returned to its farming and agricultural ways, and built new housing from the remnants of the older settlement housing. It was at this time that some of the first mud bricks are seen in the structures.

The settlement population exploded with the return of a temperate climate, and farming became a way of life for these Neolithic peoples. Evidenced by the skeletons recovered during this time period, deformities in the bones and teeth were acknowledged to be due to the rigors of increased agricultural practices. The pursuit and storage of stone ground grains, made life easier in some ways and harder in others. Increases in the varieties of plants and seeds proved that farming was now a part of not only these early human societies, but a tool that would soon lead to the development of many other technologies! Animals eventually would be collected and herded and the discovery of pottery quite possibly coincided with the "Firing" of mud bricks used for buildings. The earliest pottery was found to be about 7300 BCE, but the village was eventually abandoned for good around the year 7000 BCE. It could be said that these early peoples were truly the founding father and mothers of what we now consider to be civilization.