Thriving barely field

Bruce Bower wrote in “Europe’s ancient embrace of farming took the continent on a demographic roller-coaster ride. Regional booms and busts in human numbers occurred between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago, a new study finds.From southern France to Scotland and Scandinavia, 10 of 12 regions with early farming sites experienced substantial population ups, downs or both, say archaeologist Stephen Shennan of University College London and his colleagues. Known climate changes from the period show no relation to the timing of the shifts in the size of these farming societies, the researchers report October 2013 in Nature Communications. [Source: Bruce Bower,, October 1, 2013]

““Diminishing natural resources due to agricultural practices may partly have caused population busts,” says anthropologist and study coauthor Sean Downey of the University of Maryland in College Park. He and his colleagues reported in 2012 that as Britain’s population increased following the introduction of farming, the nation’s forests shrank in size — consistent with a reduction in available wood and food products needed to sustain a large population.

“Researchers already knew that agriculture in Europe appeared in modern-day Turkey around 8,500 years ago, spreading to France by about 7,800 years ago and then to Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe approximately 6,000 years ago. Farming led to more plentiful, stable food supplies, fueling population growth. But little is known about long-term population trends among ancient European cultivators.

“Shennan’s group used nearly 8,000 radiocarbon dates from archaeological sites across Western Europe to calculate rises and falls in numbers of sites before, during and after agriculture’s introduction. The researchers took fluctuations in the numbers of radiocarbon-dated sites as signs of population changes, reasoning that more archeological sites in a region at a particular time meant more people were living there.

“In most sections of Europe, populations at some point declined by as much as 30 to 60 percent compared with peaks achieved after farming began, Shennan’s team concludes. That population plummet is similar to the continental devastation wreaked by the Black Death, an epidemic that peaked in Europe between 1348 and 1350.

“The new results illuminate two major population booms in Europe that preceded declines, remarks archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Dublin. An initial boom around 7,500 years ago marked the start and spread of Europe’s earliest-known farming culture, recognized by its distinctive lined pottery. A second boom around 6,000 years ago — perhaps driven by the rise of raising livestock for dairy products (SN: 2/1/03, p. 67) — occurred as farmers expanded into Northern Europe, Pinhasi says.

Shennan’s team designed a valuable procedure for estimating ancient population fluctuations, says archaeologist Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. But unlike Shennan’s team, Bocquet-Appel says that only three regions in the new analysis — Ireland, Scotland and southern France — display clear statistical evidence of population busts following booms.

Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication; Food Timeline, History of Food ; Food and History ;

Archaeology News and Resources: : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Ancient Grains, Drought and Ancient Near Eastern Societies


Tübingen University reported: “The influence of climate on agriculture is believed to be a key factor in the rise and fall of societies in the Ancient Near East. Dr. Simone Riehl of Tübingen University’s Institute for Archaeological Science and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment has headed an investigation into archaeological finds of grain in order to find out what influence climate had on agriculture in early farming societies. Her findings are published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Source: Tübingen University’August 11, 2014 |+|]

“She and her team analyzed grains of barley up to 12,000 years old from 33 locations across the Fertile Crescent to ascertain if they had had enough water while growing and ripening. Riehl found that periods of drought had had noticeable and widely differing effects on agriculture and societies in the Ancient Near East, with settlements finding a variety of ways to deal with the problem. |+|

“The 1,037 ancient samples were between 12,000 and 2,500 years old. They were compared with modern samples from 13 locations in the former Fertile Crescent. Dr. Riehl and her team measured the grains’ content of two stable carbon isotopes. When barley grass gets insufficient water while growing, the proportion of heavier carbon isotopes deposited in its cells will be higher than normal. The two isotopes 12C und 13C remain stable for thousands of years and can be measured precisely – giving Simone Riehl and her colleagues reliable information on the availability of water while the plants were growing. |+|

“They found that many settlements were affected by drought linked to major climate fluctuations. “Geographic factors and technologies introduced by humans played a big role and influenced societies’ options for development as well as their particular ways of dealing with drought,” says Riehl. Her findings indicate that harvests in coastal regions of the northern Levant were little affected by drought; but further inland, drought lead to the need for irrigation or, in extreme cases, abandonment of the settlement. |+|

“The findings give archaeologists clues as to how early agricultural societies dealt with climate fluctuations and differing local environments. “They can also help evaluate current conditions in regions with a high risk of crop failures,” Riehl adds. The study is part of a German Research Foundation-backed project looking into the conditions under which Ancient Near Eastern societies rose and fell. |+|

First Use of Fertilizer

According to “The high levels of nitrogen-15 found in samples of wheat, barley, peas, and lentils from 13 early farming sites in suggest that European farmers were fertilizing their crops with manure as early as 8,000 years ago, or some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought. Archaeobotanist Amy Bogaard of the University of Oxford thinks that the farmers probably noticed that areas where their animals gathered became “patches of superfertile ground.” This evidence supports the idea that “cropping and herding developed in tandem,” and were “entangled from the start,” she added. [Source:, July 16, 2013 ==]

cattle droppings on agricultural land

“Fertilizer provides plants with all sorts of nutrients that they need to grow strong and healthy, including, most importantly, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. That’s why farmers all over the world, in countries rich and poor, put manure on their crops. Nevertheless, it may not be intuitively obvious that spreading animal dung around plants is good for them, and archaeologists had found no evidence for the practice earlier than about 3000 years ago. Farmers in the Near East—what is today Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and neighboring countries—began cultivating plants and herding animals about 8000 B.C.E., but there are no signs that they used animal dung for anything other than as fuel for fires. ==

“So a team led by Amy Bogaard, an archaeobotanist at the University of Oxford, decided to look for evidence in Europe, where farming began to spread from the Near East about 8500 years ago. Manure has a higher than normal proportion of the rare isotope nitrogen-15, which is heavier than the more common N-14. The researchers took advantage of recent agricultural research showing that plants treated with manure also have more nitrogen-15. They measured the nitrogen-15 content of plant remains from cereals such as wheat and barley and pulses such as peas and lentils from 13 early farming sites. The sites dated to between 7900 and 4400 years ago and ranged from Greece and Bulgaria in the southeast to the United Kingdom and Denmark in the northwest. As the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the nitrogen-15 levels in 124 crop samples, totaling more than 2500 individual cereal grains or pulse seeds, were high and consistent with the use of manure at most of the 13 sites.

“Bogaard and her colleagues conclude that as agriculture spread to Europe, farmers began to invest more and more heavily in the long-term management of their fields. That meant spreading manure, which breaks down slowly and increases the fertility of farmland over many years. This long-term relationship with the land, the team suggests, fostered notions of land ownership and fueled the kind of stratified social hierarchies of wealthier and poorer peoples that other researchers have uncovered on the continent.

“So how did early farmers figure out that spreading manure was a key to farming success? Bogaard says that there are several plausible scenarios. Areas of “natural dung accumulation,” where animals hung out, would have provided “patches of superfertile ground that early crops would have colonized,” she points out, adding that “subsistence farmers are extremely observant of small differences in growth and productivity among their plots.” And new evidence from both the Near East and Europe, Bogaard says, suggests that “cropping and herding developed in tandem” and were “entangled from the start.”

“The team is on firm ground in claiming the earliest use of fertilizer, says Martin Jones, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. “We used to think that close integration of animal and crop husbandry” was a later development, he says, but the new research indicates “that it goes back to Europe’s first farmers.”

Earliest Evidence of Ploughing: Indus Valley or Czech Republic?

According to Wikipedia: The earliest evidence of a ploughed field in the world was found at the Indus Valley Civilization site of Kalibangan (c. 2800 B.C.). [Source: Lal, BB (2003). Excavations at Kalibangan, the Early Harappans, 1960–1969. Archaeological Survey of India. pp. 17, 98]

Indus Valley bullock cart with driver

On the findings at the Kalibangan site in present-day Rajasthan, India, B.K. Thapar"The economy of these people must have relied largely on agriculture. Although no cereals were found in the course of excavating the discovery of a ploughed field, situated to the south-east of the settlement outside the town-hall, is highly significant. The field showed a grid of furrows, with one set, more closely spaced, running east-west, and the other, widely spaced, running north-south. Curiously enough, this pattern bears a remarkable resemblance to modern ploughing in the neighborhood, where two types of cereal (pulse in one direction and mustard in the other) are grown in the same field, the combination depending upon the size and growth of the plants. No remains of either a plough or a ploughshare or a coulter have, however, been obtained from the excavation, but the existence of a field showing tolerably well-preserved furrows provides concrete evidence for the use of the plough. The material of which the ploughshare or coulter were made and its shape still remain to be known. Since cultivation during that period seems to have depended on flood-irrigation, supplemented by seasonal precipitation, it is reasonable to infer that only the winter crop, viz. the rabi, was grown, the sowing being done in the autumn after the river-flood, resulting from the tropical monsoon, had subsided." [Source: B.K. Thapar, “New traits of the Indus civilization at Kalibangan: an appraisal”, Norman Hammond, Ed., South Asian Archaeology, Noyes Press, Park Ridge, N.J., 1973, p. 89.]

However in 2012, the Prague Monitor reported: “Archaeologists in Prague-Bubenec have uncovered a site with the oldest traces of ploughing and a field in the Czech Lands, that date back to the mid-4th millennium B.C., Archaeological Institute spokeswoman Jana Marikova has told CTK. The research in two streets, completed late last year, also uncovered a rich evidence on the area’s population in later periods, from the Celtic people and German tribes to the early medieval inhabitants, Marikova said. [Source:, January 17, 2012 ||~||]

“Probably the most important find is the system of four approximately parallel lines that are nine metres long, ten metres wide and eight centimeters deep, which archeologists say, are furrows. Experts believe the furrows date back to the earlier phase of Copper Age, i.e. between 3800 and 3500 B.C. ||~||

“The oldest evidence on the use of primitive ploughs in Europe also coincide with this period. “The Bubenec finds are exceptional in that the furrows probably cannot be considered ritual ploughing. If so, it would be the oldest trace of a field in the Czech Republic,” Marikova said, Archaeologists have taken 200 boxes with uncovered ancient artifacts away from the Bubenec site, not far from the Prague Castle, and also soil samples for natural scientists to further examine.” ||~||

Irrigation: A Key to the Formation of Civilizations

Irrigation was also a key component to the rise of civilization. When people learned to manage their water resources, chiefly river water, permanent settlements became possible. The earliest form of irrigation was partly or wholly natural, such as at Catal Huyuk in southwestern Turkey Catal Huyuk lies near the foot of mountains and at the edge of a seasonal "river." Every spring the river not only watered the soil but also enriched it with its silt, making it unnecessary for the inhabitants of the community to relocate every two to three years. Rivers and Water became powerful symbols in the thinking of ancient man, especially as cities grew along the river banks [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Irrigation was used as a means of manipulation of water in the alluvial plains of the Indus valley civilization,the application of it is estimated to have begun around 4500 BC and drastically increased the size and prosperity of their agricultural settlements. Sophisticated irrigation and water storage systems were developed by the Indus Valley Civilization, including artificial reservoirs at Girnar dated to 3000 B.C. and an early canal irrigation system from c. 2600 B.C. Large scale agriculture was practiced and an extensive network of canals was used for the purpose of irrigation. [Source: Wikipedia]

Perennial irrigation was practiced in the Mesopotamian plain. Crops were regularly watered throughout the growing season by directing water through a matrix of small channels formed in the field. On the Babylonians, Claude Hermann and Walter Johns wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica:“Irrigation was indispensable. If the irrigator neglected to repair his dyke, or left his runnel open and caused a flood, he had to make good the damage done to his neighbours' crops, or be sold with his family to pay the cost. The theft of a watering-machine, water-bucket or other agricultural implement was heavily fined.” [Source: Claude Hermann Walter Johns, Babylonian Law — The Code of Hammurabi. Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911]

Ancient Egyptians practiced Basin irrigation using the flooding of the Nile to inundate land plots which had been surrounded by dykes. The flood water was held until the fertile sediment had settled before the surplus was returned to the watercourse. There is evidence of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet III in the twelfth dynasty (about 1800 B.C.) using the natural lake of the Faiyum Oasis as a reservoir to store surpluses of water for use during the dry seasons.

Samarran Culture, Choga Mami and the Origins of Irrigation

Yemen irrigation

The Samarra culture is a Copper Age culture in northern Mesopotamia that existed roughly dated from 5500 to 4800 B.C.. Partially overlaping with the Hassuna and early Ubaid periods, . Samarra its is associated most with the sites of of Samarra, Tell Shemshara, Tell es-Sawwan and Yarim Tepe. At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period.

Choga Mami a Samarran site in Diyala Province, Iraq about 110 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, shows some of world’s earliest evidence of irrigation. The first canal irrigation operation dates to about 6000 B.C.. The site,, has been dated to the late 6th millennium B.C., was occupied in several phases from the Samarran culture through the Ubaid. Buildings were rectangular and built of mud brick, including a guard tower at the settlement's entrance. Irrigation supported livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) and arable (wheat, barley and flax) agriculture. [Source: Wikipedia]

Choga Mami yields important evidence on the chronological relationships between North and South Mesopotamian cultures and their connections with Iran. The introduction of irrigation, new types of grain, foreign ceramic styles and domestic cattle are all located in the Choga Mami phase, a late manifestation of the Samarran Period in lowland Mesopotamia. This chronological identification thus also suggests the source of these innovations: migration from the lowlands.

Choga Mami is the largest Tell in the Mandali region. Excavators David and Joan Oates describe the site as a "low mound some 200 meters long and 2-5 meters high," and "heavily eroded, the latest preserved levels dating to 4800 B.C." Based on excavation findings, it appears that Choga Mami had a few small village clusters with small irrigated areas where people grew wheat and barley; herded sheep, goats and some cows; and hunted gazelles and other wild fauna. Lentils and "large-seeded peas" were also grown, while pistachios were gathered from the nearby landscape. The domestication of plants and animals at Choga Mami was possible because of man-made irrigation channels which "ran along the northern side of the mound," which date from the "6th millennium B.C.," and a large canal dating to the end of the Samarran period which was located at the "southwestern side of the mound." Some channels reached more than five kilometers in length, which would require the cooperative labor of larger groups. The latest of these canals can be dated to around 1,500 years ago.

5,200-Year-Old Irrigation in Yemen

The University of Toronto reported: In the remote desert highlands of southern Yemen, a team of archaeologists have discovered new evidence of ancient transitions from hunting and herding to irrigation agriculture 5,200 years ago. As part of a larger program of archaeological research, Michael Harrower from the University of Toronto and The Roots of Agriculture in Southern Arabia (RASA) team explored the Wadi Sana watershed documenting 174 ancient irrigation structures, modeled topography and hydrology, and interviewed contemporary camel and goat herders and irrigation farmers. [Source: University of Toronto, July 21, 2008]

"Agriculture in Yemen appeared relatively late in comparison with other areas of the Middle East, where farming first developed near the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago," says author Michael Harrower, Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. "It's clear early farmers in Yemen faced unique environmental and social opportunities and challenges. Our findings show farming in southern Yemen required runoff diversion technologies that were adapted to harness monsoon (summer) runoff from the rugged terrain along with new understandings of social landscapes and rights to scarce water resources."

The researchers used computer Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping to determine that ancient forager-herders developed expert knowledge of hydrology and targeted particular small watersheds and landforms for irrigation. Studies of contemporary land and water rights, including principles enshrined in Islamic law, suggest their origins lie at the very beginnings of water management as tribal principles of water equity intertwined with changing ideologies and culture. These and other discoveries in southern Arabia have recently helped document the diversity of transitions from foraging to agriculture that in Yemen later gave rise to powerful ancient cities and states with advanced irrigation technologies that transformed deserts into lush, bountiful oases. The study findings are published in the current issue of the journal Current Anthropology.”

Ancient irrigation in Central Asia

Mesopotamian Agriculture

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.

On Mesopotamian agriculture, Morris Jastrow said: “The population was largely agricultural, but as the cities grew in size, naturally, industrial pursuits and commercial activity increased. Testimony to brisk trading in fields and field products, in houses and woven stuffs, in cattle and slaves is furnished by the large number of business documents of all periods from the earliest to the latest, embracing such a variety of subjects as loans, rents of fields and houses, contracts for work, hire of workmen and slaves, and barter and exchange of all kinds. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Yemen, World Archaeology and Central Asian and Mesopotamian maps, University of Colorado

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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