AGRICULTURE, CROPS, IRRIGATION IN MESOPOTAMIA

AGRICULTURE IN MESOPOTAMIA

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People on the Tigres and Euphrates learned how to domesticate plants and animals about 10,000 years ago. The world's first wheat, oats, barely and lentils evolved from wild plants found in Iraq.

Mesopotamia was ideally suited for agriculture. It was flat and treeless. There was lots of sun and no killing frosts and plenty of water from two mighty rivers that flooded every spring, depositing nutrient-rich silt on the already fertile soil.

Major crops included barley, dates, wheat, lentils, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes, vegetables. Pistachios were grown in royal gardens in Babylonia.

See Climate and Weather

Development of Agriculture

Agriculture began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Considered the most important human advance after the control of fire and the creation of tools, it allowed people to settle in specific areas and freed them from hunting and gathering. According to the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground,” the Bible reads.

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Clay Sumerian sickle
The first documented agriculture occurred 11,500 year ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Ban-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley. At Mureybit, a site on the banks of the Euphrates, seeds from an uplands area---where the plants from the seeds grow naturally--- were found and dated to 11,500 years ago. An abundance of seeds from plants that grew elsewhere found near human sites is offered as evidence of agriculture.

Early agriculture is most famously associated with the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that extends from southern Turkey into Iraq and Syria and finally to Israel and Lebanon. Seeds of 10,000-year-old cultivated wheat have been discovered at sites in Iraq and northern Syria. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Around 10,500 years ago agriculture began developing in the Middle East and China and to a lesser extent in Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago.

See Early Agriculture, First Villages

Impact of Agriculture on Development

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The development of earliest villages in the Middle East coincide with first domestication of grasses like wild barley and wheat. Large fields with these wild grains are still found in Anatolia. Seeds from wild grains ripen over a period of three weeks. A individual using a flint-blade sickle can harvest about two pounds of grain an hour. Grain harvested by a group of people over a three week period can last them a year. Additionally, grain is easier to store than other foodstuffs because it can be dried and preserved and doesn't rot like some kinds of potatoes and vegetables.

Agriculture freed humans from the natural productivity of the territory they occupied and allowed them to manipulate their environment to meet their needs. This in turn allowed them expand their communities and meant they had to spend less time in the pursuit of food, freeing them to do other things.

Agriculture also allowed the birthrate to become significantly higher than the death rate. Many patterns of genetic variation come from population expansions spurred by the development of agriculture.

First Crops, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat

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The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East.

Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains---wheat, rice, corn and sorghum---evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

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eikorn Triticum
Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.

Irrigation in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia was originally swampy in some areas and dry in others. The climate was too hot and dry in most places to raise crops without some assistance.

Mesopotamians developed irrigation agriculture. To irrigate the land, the earliest inhabitants of the region drained the swampy lands and built canals through the dry areas. This had been done in other places before Mesopotamian times. What made Mesopotamia the home of the first irrigation culture is that the irrigation system was built according to a plan, and an organized work force was required to keep the system maintained. Irrigation system began on a small-scale basis and developed into a large scale operation as the government gained more power.

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The Sumerians initiated a large scale irrigation program. They built huge embankments along the Euphrates River, drained the marshes and dug irrigation ditches and canals. It not only took great amount of organized labor to build the system it also required a great amount of labor to keep it maintained. Government and laws were created distribute water to make sure the operation ran smoothly.

Archaeologists have found 3,300-year-old plow furrows with water jars still lying by small feeder canals near Ur in southern Iraq.

The Mesopotamia kingdoms were ravaged by wars and hurt by changing watercourse and the salinization of farmland. In the Bible the Prophet Jeremiah said Mesopotamia’s “cities are a desolation, a dry land, and a wilderness, a land wherein no man dwelleth, neither doth any son of man pass thereby." Today wolves scavenge in the wastelands outside of Ur.

The early Mesopotamian civilizations are believed to have fallen because salt accruing from irrigated water turned fertile land into a salt desert. Continuous irrigation raised the ground water, capillary action---the ability of a liquid to flow against gravity where liquid spontaneously rises in a narrow space such as between grains of sand and soil--- brought the salts to the surface, poisoning the soil and make it useless for growing wheat. Barley is more salt resistant than wheat. It was grown in less damaged areas. The fertile soil turned to sand by drought and the changing course of the Euphrates that today is several miles away from Ur and Nippur.

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Livestock in Mesopotamia

People on the Tigres and Euphrates learned how to domesticate animals about 10,000 years ago. Goats and sheep were the primary livestock animals.

See Meat, First Villages

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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