Chapter Summary and Key Concepts

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • discuss patterns of subsistence and culture that began in the Epipaleolithic in Southwest Asia
  • understand the difference between the early and later Epipaleolithic
  • trace these lifeways into Natufian times and describe how they developed
  • describe the significance of complex hunter-gatherers to the origins of agriculture
  • discuss how the Younger Dryas climatic reversal may have caused sedentary foraging communities to begin to cultivate certain crops
  • explain the processes, intentional and unintentional, that lead to recognizably domesticated forms of species
  • understand the differences between the early and later aceramic Neolithic periods
  • discuss the relationship between early mixed farming and environmental and population stress
  • link the creation of permanent village communities to new kinds of social organization and symbolic activities such as art, burial traditions, and architecture
  • describe both the differences and striking parallels among the early farming communities in different regions
  • discuss explanations for the “collapse” between the aceramic and the Ceramic Neolithic
  • describe sites which serve as key examples of the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic transitions
  • grasp the many theories that have been proposed to explain change through time during these periods.

Chapter Summary


Southwest Asia is geographically and climatically varied, encompassing the natural habitats of wild plants and animals ancestral to the first domesticates in the region.

Robert Braidwood defined a “nuclear zone,” where the region’s hunter-gatherers lived. This was the “hilly flanks of the Fertile Crescent” – the foothills of mountains surrounding the fertile plain. Annual rainfall of over 250 mm, enough to support later farmers, created ideal conditions for hunter-gatherers living off wild plants and animals.

During the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 21,000–18,000 bc), wild wheat, barley, and rye were restricted to a few small refugia in the northern “hilly flanks” zone. After gradual warming, by about 11,000 bc, a climate similar to today’s existed, but at around 10,800 bc, a worldwide reversal, the Younger Dryas, occurred, though less dramatically in Southwest Asia than elsewhere. Cooler and drier conditions lasted until about 9600 bc; then recovery took only about 50 years. This marks the end of the Pleistocene and the Epipaleolithic, and the beginning of the Holocene and the Neolithic. Early theorists suggested that harsh climate changes led to farming, but since conditions were conducive to ample hunting and gathering throughout, there is no simple causal relation between changing climate and the adoption of cultivation.


The Epipaleolithic displays more cultural diversity and change for such a short period than any preceding period. “Bladelets” dominated assemblages: long, narrow, parallel-sided flakes divided into geometric microliths, sometimes retouched into crescents, could be combined to make light, barbed arrowheads for hunting small mammals and birds, indicating subsistence change in the late Paleolithic.

Kent Flannery called this strategy a “broad-spectrum revolution”: a focus on small game, birds, fish, and shellfish, with continued large animal hunting, complemented by greater reliance on grasses, cereals, and pulses, indicated by increased use of mortars, pestles, and grinding stones at Epipaleolithic sites. This allowed longer stays in one place: a trend toward sedentism. Lower mobility probably led to increased female fertility, then population growth, and eventually to cultivation and herding.

The Discovery of the Natufians.

The Natufian culture was first identified by Dorothy Garrod in 1928, when she excavated Shuqbah Cave in Wadi en-Natuf (hence Natufian). Extensive survey yielded more Natufian settlements, some similar to Shuqbah, others in open settings, stratified and long-occupied, including houses with stone foundations. Later, Natufian sites were found at Abu Hureyra and Tell Mureybit in Syria.

Distinctive Natufian features in tools, personal adornments, evidence of trade and burial practices are related to harvesting, sedentism, and new social conditions.


The Neolithic begins around 9600 bc, and is divided into an early, aceramic (pre-pottery) Neolithic (to 6900 bc) and a later, ceramic Neolithic (c. 6900–6000 bc). The aceramic Neolithic is further divided into early (c. 9600–8800 bc) and later (8800–6900 bc) periods. As the period is better understood, these terms are becoming outdated.

Many early aceramic Neolithic sites relied little, if at all, on cultivated crops. Only later did people depend on domesticates. People adopted cultivation at different rates, and began herding later, again at different times. The species preferred also differed between areas.

In most of Southwest Asia, microliths rapidly went out of use. Human skeletons have been found with projectile points embedded in them, and some settlements were fortified. Heavy stone mace-heads appeared at the same time. Weapons were used for display, competition, and inter-community warfare. New points went in and out of fashion at almost the same time throughout a very large area, not based on technological improvement. Bipolar core preparation became widespread, with blades removed alternately from each end of a core. This provides evidence for long-distance contact and exchange networks throughout the region.

The Epipaleolithic yielded only a few engravings and carvings of animals. Suddenly, in the earliest aceramic Neolithic, an “explosion” of small, three-dimensional female human and animal figurines, especially bulls, occurred, possibly representing a female deity and male divine principle (bull).

The First Large Settlements Discovered: Jericho and Çatalhöyük

Kathleen Kenyon, excavating at Jericho, found Neolithic deposits without pottery, which she termed Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (PPNA and PPNB) dating to between 9600 bc and 7000 bc. A stone wall, rock-cut ditch, and solid stone cylindrical tower dated to the PPNA at the site. Several corpses were thrown down the staircase in the tower’s core at the end of its use. The tower, wall, and ditch were probably more symbolic than defensive, since no similar contemporary settlement existed to threaten Jericho.

Çatalhöyük was a Neolithic settlement more than five times larger than Jericho (13 ha, or 32 acres). Striking architecture, imagery, and plaster modeling were found within closely packed houses, with many burials below the plaster floors. Çatalhöyük’s thousands of occupants and their complex belief systems and symbolic representations suggest that social life encompassed more than food production.

There are no signs of high-status individuals or social hierarchy in the aceramic Neolithic, probably indicating a segmentary society, a large community made up of several lineages whose heads acted as a council of elders. Evidence for feasting may point to emergent authority for chiefs and lineages.

In the early aceramic Neolithic, houses did not have individual storage. In the later aceramic Neolithic households acquired their own storage and food-processing equipment. Evidence of long-distance trade demonstrates that the communities during this period were in contact with each other. This network of exchange produced many shared characteristics among distant communities at this time.


Plant Domestication

Southwest Asia has the most potential plant domesticates in the world, in particular wild legumes and cereals. The main cereals were wheat and barley. Current information suggests cultivation of cereals began in the early aceramic period, if not possibly even earlier. This was “pre-domestication agriculture”: i.e. methods were not yet sufficiently intensive to induce genetic change. By the later aceramic Neolithic cultivation became more intensified, at a time when the climate was improving, implying that intensification was not caused by environmental change, but rather population pressure or other factors.

Hunting and Herding

Southwest Asia also had the most potential animal domesticates. The identification of animal domestication is complex and difficult, though animal bones survive better than plant remains. Animal domestication may have occurred later than plant domestication, but still around the transition between the earlier and later aceramic Neolithic.

Changes in hunting strategies are often seen in the archaeological before domestication starts. The growth of human population in a region may deplete the numbers of animal species that were normally hunted. In evaluating bone assemblages to determine whether the animals in question had been domesticated, researchers look for herd management strategies, such as unnatural age and sex profiles, that are not seen in the wild.


Throughout Southwest Asia there is a marked discontinuity between the earlier, aceramic Neolithic and the later, ceramic Neolithic, not limited to the addition of pottery.

The Levant

In only a few centuries after intensified farming began, a total system collapse or a major social transformation occurred in the Levant. Jericho and many late aceramic Neolithic settlements were abandoned during the later 8th millennium bc, and were replaced with only a few small, ephemeral sites, in contrast to the substantial aceramic Neolithic sites. Explanations include the end of a climatic optimum, with increased aridification, but evidence is slight. Others propose that intensive cultivation and grazing degraded the environment immediately surrounding sites.

Syria, Turkey, and Cyprus

Similar abandonment, without replacement, is seen. Abu Hureyra, for example, was abandoned at the beginning of the ceramic Neolithic. Populations moved elsewhere or shifted to nomadic pastoralism in smaller communities. As large aceramic settlements along the Euphrates failed, a similar large number were founded toward the Mediterranean coast, none occupied earlier than about 6900 bc.

Iraq and Iran

In northern Iraq, aceramic Neolithic sites in the Taurus Mountains’ foothills were abandoned when the ceramic Neolithic began. On the plain between the Euphrates and Tigris, many small farming villages sprang up in the ceramic Neolithic period, in a farming region that was previously unoccupied.

Box Features

Key Site: Ohalo II: Epipaleolithic Lifeways in the Levant

Key Site: Abu Hureyra: The Transition from Foraging to Farming

Key Site: Jerf el Ahmar: A Neolithic Village

Key Site: Göbekli Tepe: Religious Structures at a “Central Place”

Key Site: WF16: A Settlement with a Large Communal Building

Key Site: Çatalhöyük

Key words and terms


  • geographical variety
  • ecotone
  • “hilly flanks”
  • Zagros Mountains
  • Taurus Mountains
  • Great Konya lake
  • Levant
  • Negev Desert, Sinai
  • Jordan
  • Syria
  • Mount Carmel hills
  • Euphrates Valley
  • Konya plain
  • Turkey
  • Iraq
  • Iran
  • Mediterranean coast
  • Mesopotamia
  • Euphrates-Tigris plain
  • Khorammabad Valley
  • Khuzistan Plain


  • Last Glacial Maximum
  • climatic diversity
  • refugia
  • warming trend
  • Younger Dryas

Cultural phases

  • Paleolithic
  • Epipaleolithic, Early; Late
  • Natufian
  • Zarzian
  • Neolithic
  • Aceramic (pre-pottery) Neolithic
  • Ceramic Neolithic


  • Ohalo II, Israel
  • Neve David, Israel
  • Shuqbah Cave, Wadi en-Natuf, Israel
  • Eynan, Israel
  • Abu Hureyra, Syria
  • Tell Mureybit, Syria
  • Hayonim, Israel
  • Zarzi rockshelter, Iraq
  • Shanidar Cave, Iraq
  • Zawi Chemi, Iraq
  • Hallan Çemi, Turkey
  • Jarmo, Iraq
  • Tell es-Sultan (Jericho), Jordan Valley
  • Çatalhöyük, Turkey
  • Wadi Feynan, Jordan
  • Basta, Jordan
  • ‘Ain Ghazal, Jordan
  • Abu Hureyra, Syria
  • Jerf el Ahmar, Syria
  • Qermez Dere, Iraq
  • Çayönü Tepesi, Turkey
  • Nevali Çori, Turkey
  • Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
  • Ain Ghazal, Jordan
  • Ali Kosh, Iran


  • Robert Braidwood
  • Kent Flannery
  • V. Gordon Childe
  • Don Henry
  • Nigel Goring-Morris
  • Dorothy Garrod
  • Jean Perrot
  • Gary Wright
  • Anna Belfer-Cohen
  • Michael Rosenberg
  • Lewis Binford
  • James Woodburn
  • Alain Testart
  • Jacques Cauvin
  • Kathleen Kenyon
  • James Mellaart
  • Danielle Stordeur
  • Gary Rollefson
  • Colin Renfrew
  • Andrew Garrard
  • Frank Hole

Site features

  • circular, semi-subterranean houses
  • stone-lined burials
  • cemeteries
  • wall, ditch, tower at Jericho
  • architecture, painting and plaster modeling at Çatalhöyük
  • burials under house floors
  • storage and food preparation buildings
  • plazas
  • ritual buildings
  • “skull building”
  • stone monoliths; pillars
  • skull caches
  • clay-modeled skulls


  • broad-spectrum revolution
  • agricultural revolution
  • transhumance
  • foraging vs. collecting
  • immediate vs. delayed return strategies
  • social and cognitive implications of sedentism, storage
  • symbolic revolution
  • psycho-cultural change; natural vs. supernatural worlds
  • social hierarchies vs. egalitarianism
  • segmentary societies
  • ancestor worship, cults
  • obsidian exchange.
  • down-the-line trade
  • PPNB as dominant, expansionist
  • PPNB as peer-polity interaction sphere
  • ceramic Neolithic environmental degradation

Subsistence, settlement, and social strategies

  • greater sedentism
  • stored harvests
  • trade networks
  • mobile base-camps; stationary base-camps
  • social inequality
  • built environment
  • warfare, conflict
  • increased contact, social networks
  • farming villages
  • towns, urbanization
  • complex ritual behaviors
  • population nucleation
  • lineages, lineage heads
  • individual vs. communal storage, food preparation
  • plazas, public buildings
  • storage buildings
  • ritual buildings, monuments
  • mixed Farming Economies
  • founder crops
  • animal domestication
  • transition to plains settlement
  • reliance on domesticates
  • increasingly shared cultural traits
  • ceramic Neolithic system collapse
  • over-grazing; over-farming
  • site abandonment
  • nomadic pastoralism

Technology, artifacts

  • bladelet
  • microlith
  • geometric (triangles, rhombuses)
  • crescent (lunate)
  • pounding (mortar and pestle)
  • grinding (querns and grinders)
  • sickle blades
  • silica polish
  • imported black basalt
  • decorated tools
  • dentalium shells
  • obsidian
  • ceramics
  • Khiam point
  • leaf-shaped, lozenge-shaped, and tanged points.
  • bipolar (naviform) cores

Art, symbolic behavior

  • personal adornment
  • caps, hair ornaments, capes
  • bracelets, garters
  • perforated animal teeth
  • stone beads, pendants
  • shell embroidery
  • three-dimensional clay, stone figures
  • female human figurines
  • animal figurines
  • bull figurines
  • stylized T-shaped anthropomorphic stone slabs
  • bas-reliefs of wild animals
  • skull caches
  • clay-modeled skulls