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Chapter 6- From Foragers to Complex Societies in Southwest Asia

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.

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

Robert Braidwood defined a "nuclear zone," where the region's hunter-gatherers lived. This was not the Fertile Crescent, but 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 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 new 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, aided by the fact that hard-shelled seeds can be stored. Lower mobility probably increased female fertility, led to population growth, and eventually to cultivation and herding.

The Early Epipaleolithic in the Levant Early Epipaleolithic sites (18,000-12,000 BC) are found in the Levant: Israel's Mediterranean woodland zone, the Negev Desert, Sinai, regions of Jordan, and inland Syria. Sites of all Epipaleolithic stages are found in the semi-desert zone, mostly small, short-term, seasonal occupations by small groups. Among the stone tools are heavy grinding and pounding implements, indicating that dry grain and seed were being processed.

Don Henry found transhumance in southern Jordan, between low-altitude rockshelters in large winter camps and smaller, open upland sites during summer. Similar transhumance is reported by Nigel Goring-Morris in the Negev and Sinai.

Ohalo II and Neve David. Some early Epipaleolithic caves and rockshelters in the Mediterranean zone indicate continuation of Upper Paleolithic lifeways. More recently discovered early open-air sites display new lifeways, foreshadowing the later Epipaleolithic.

    Ohalo II c. 18,000 BC, a nearly sedentary settlement, with a large range of stored plant foods.
    Neve David c. 12,000 BC, a large sedentary site with soil and clay structures, ground-stone implements, and two burials in stone-lined pits with offerings, reminiscent of later Natufian sites.

Other sites contain traces of circular, semi-subterranean houses that characterize later Natufian sites.

The Late Epipaleolithic in the Levant In the Late Epipaleolithic period (c. 12,000-9600 BC) the Natufian culture emerged, sometimes called a "threshold event" for a "pre-agricultural revolution" although Ohalo II and Neve David now indicate precursors.

The Natufians intensified these traditions. Small campsite use continued, but more sedentary settlements appeared: large, permanent villages occupied for centuries with up to 200-300 people, more implements for pounding and grinding, and many deliberate burials.

The Discovery of the Natufians. The Natufian culture was first identified in Israel by Dorothy Garrod in 1928, when she excavated Shuqbah Cave in Wadi en-Natuf (hence Natufian). The site was very large and the assemblage contained

    numerous small blades, polished from use as sickles
    numerous and conspicuously large mortars and grinding stones.
    built living structures on the slope outside the cave
    more than 100 burials in a regular cemetery.

Extensive survey yielded more Israeli 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.

Evidence for Natufian Lifeways Distinctive Natufian features are related to harvesting, sedentism, and new social conditions.

    crescent-shaped microliths (lunates) used as sickle blades, with characteristic silica polish, produced by cutting plant stems.
    a sharp increase in ground-stone bowls and mortars (some decorated), used for storing and processing dry seeds.
    personal adornment: bodies buried wearing caps, hair ornaments, capes, bracelets, and garters, embroidered with imported dentalium shells, perforated animal teeth, stone beads, and pendants.
    clear evidence of trade: black basalt from the Red Sea, obsidian from central Turkey, marine shells.
    cemeteries, with single and multiple inhumations in pits, wearing clothes and ornaments, but no "grave goods." A small number lack the skull, evidence of rituals that later intensified.

Because cemeteries contain only some site occupants, Gary Wright believed that the Natufians were socially stratified, with inherited status, but Anna Belfer-Cohen recently showed there is little evidence for social hierarchies. Reasons why only a minority received ceremonial burial are uncertain.

The Late Epipaleolithic Beyond the Levant Outside the well-researched and excavated Levant, less work has been done on the Epipaleolithic.

    Antalya, Turkey -- a long stratigraphic sequence through the Upper Paleolithic, Epipaleolithic, and into the early Neolithic in caves, which is not yet fully explored or documented.

    Cave sites in the Zagros mountains of Iraq and Iran belong to the Zarzian culture. Kent Flannery and Frank Hole demonstrated broad-spectrum strategies, but the area was colder than today with little vegetation, and no grinding implements are found, it is doubtful that the Zarzians were as sedentary as the Natufians.

    Shanidar Cave in the mountains of northeast Iraq - evidence indicates sedentary hunter-gatherers dependant on stored harvests and a broad-spectrum hunting strategy, through ground-stone implements, small mammal bones, fish and shellfish.

    Zawi Chemi , an open site near Shanidar, yielded circular, stone-built houses, burials within the settlement, and personal ornaments. There were over 200 ground-stone implements, and animal bones indicate intensive wild sheep exploitation.

    Hallan Çemi in southeast Turkey contained substantial circular stone structures, one larger and more substantial with a wild bull's skull hung on the wall. Ground-stone mortars and pounders were found, and carbonized legumes, nuts and fruits but no cereals. Wild sheep dominate a broad resource spectrum, and pigs may have been domesticated.

An Epipaleolithic Summary In at least three regions, the Southwest Asian Epipaleolithic was a long era of shifts in settlement and subsistence strategies. Lewis Binford defined two categories: collectors, who obtain daily food supplies, moving base camps frequently; and foragers, who are more sedentary, using a logistically complex strategy of bases from which they exploit their environs. James Woodburn described "immediate" versus "delayed" return strategies. Intensive harvesting, processing and storage forms a delayed return strategy. Anthropologist Alain Testart discussed social implications of food storage among hunter-gatherers, especially social inequalities. Thus, we can infer that Epipaleolithic hunter-gatherers may have been delayed-return foragers with more complex social structures. Their shift toward a "built environment" had cognitive and cultural implications.

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.

New Stoneworking Technologies In most of Southwest Asia, microliths rapidly went out of use. Across a broad area, similar one-piece arrowheads appear, making up 25 percent of all tools in some periods. Species or proportions of species hunted were unchanged, but 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. Changes in tool traditions include:

    Khiam points - the earliest Neolithic point, notched near the concave base
    points with two pairs of notches
    leaf-shaped points, lozenge-shaped points, and tanged points

New points went in and out of fashion at almost the same time throughout a very large area, not based on technological improvement. Some later types may have been spear or javelin heads.

Bipolar core preparation became widespread, in which blades were removed alternately from each end of a core. This provides evidence for long-distance contact and exchange networks throughout the region.

Innovations in Art and Ideas 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 a female deity and male divine principle (bull). Jacques Cauvin called this a "symbolic revolution" - a "psycho-cultural" change enabling imagination of a structured cosmos and supernatural world in symbolic form.

The First Large Settlements: 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. 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 was 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.

Social Organization Basta, 'Ain Ghazal and Abu Hureyra all have populations of several thousand. Anthropological theory says that larger groups are less egalitarian and more hierarchical. 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.

In the early aceramic Neolithic, houses did not have individual storage. At Jerf el Ahmar, a large, central subterranean building held communal storage. At Qermez Dere half the village had dwelling houses with no evidence of food processing. The other half contained no houses, but a differently designed building with heavy stone pounding and grinding equipment. In the later aceramic Neolithic households acquired their own storage and food processing equipment.

Communal Buildings and Rituals At Çayönü Tepesi, a large, open space in the settlement's center contained three differing public buildings. One had stone-built cells full of human bones, one, the "skull building," had a heap of human skulls doused with animal blood. The third had tall stone monoliths set upright in the floor.

At Nevali Çori a small, square building in the village center contained a pair of tall, narrow stone slabs. One is preserved, and is a stylized T-shaped human form, with carved outlines of arms, elbows, hands, and fingers.

At Göbekli Tepe, monumental, curved, dry-stone walled structures dug deep into the ground contain pairs of tall, T-shaped monoliths, covered with bas-reliefs of wild animals, birds, snakes, and scorpions. More monoliths are arranged around their perimeters.

Burials and Skull Caching In aceramic Neolithic Jericho, archaeologists found human skulls whose facial features were modeled in clay and which had cowrie shell eyes. Burials among the houses were often missing both cranium and jaw. But only a few were so buried, and a minority of those were selected for the detachment and retention of the head. The tradition of separately treating the skull may go back to the Epipaleolithic, but elaborate reconstruction and painting dates to the later aceramic Neolithic.

Burial of the dead within the settlement or within the house, and the recovery and treatment of skulls, may represent an ancestor cult. There are no grave goods suggesting high status. They may have been lineages leaders whose bodies or skulls were needed for periodic rituals.


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. The earliest evidence of full domestication of a plant species is of rye from Abu Hureyra. Evidence of domesticated wheat and barley comes from site in the Jordan Valley and southern Syria in the early aceramic Neolithic. 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. By around 8800 BC, domesticated cereals are found widely around the "hilly flanks" zone.

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, with the best evidence coming from long-lived settlement sites. Animal domestication may have occurred later than plant domestication, but still around the transition between the earlier and later aceramic Neolithic. Bruce Smith has noted that the earliest dates for domesticated sheep and goats come from areas where they were most hunted. The earliest domesticated goats have been found at Ganj Dareh in Iran and the earliest domesticated sheep at sites in southeast Turkey and northern Syria. Evidence for the domestication of pigs and cattle also come from the same region, at a similar time.

Mixed Farming Economies There are many more settlements known from the later aceramic Neolithic than the early aceramic Neolithic. Is this evidence of expanding population? Did the production of more food encourage population expansion, or did population pressure force adoption of new subsistence strategies? This is still the topic of debate and research.

The Evidence of Ali Kosh. Ali Kosh lies where wild resources and domesticates could both flourish. Far from wild sheep's natural habitat, sheep bones indicate that animals were brought already controlled and managed. Successive strata show mud-brick buildings becoming larger, more complex and substantially built, and proportions of cultivated vs. wild plants rise. Paleobotanists believe that the "founder" species was domesticated only once, subsequently spread by local diffusion.

Only a couple of large early aceramic Neolithic settlements are known, but there are many large communities in the later aceramic Neolithic. Ecotones capable of supporting thousands of sedentary hunter-gatherers were few, but with domesticated species, there were many suitable locations for sites like Abu Hureyra, Çatalhöyük, and 'Ain Ghazal, with several thousand occupants. This had important social and ecological implications.

Social Exchange and Networking Obsidian and marine shells occur hundreds of kilometers from their sources. Obsidian trade networks, as well as four key sources, were identified by Colin Renfrew: two in central and two in eastern Turkey. Artifacts can be traced to these sources. Communities close to a major source, such as Çatalhöyük, used obsidian for 80 percent of their tools. Distance from the source caused rapidly declining usage. Renfrew proposed "down-the-line" exchange networks, where communities kept and used a proportion of obsidian acquired, and then exchanged the rest with those further away. At distant sites, only one in a thousand stone items is obsidian, where it was probably used in social exchanges, where gifts are tokens of the social relations between parties.

The complex technology of blade production -- naviform or bipolar cores -- was also widespread across the region in the later aceramic Neolithic, further illustrating how communities chose to participate in a shared lithic industry, especially projectile points.

Shared cultural traits grew in number and expanded territorially during the later aceramic Neolithic. Originally termed PPNB, different archaeologists use different traits to define the culture, making it difficult to define and map. Jacques Cauvin saw PPNB culture as dominant and expansionist, adopted by local communities over their indigenous culture, and carried farther by an expanding population. Alternatively, Colin Renfrew's model of peer polity interaction explains the PPNB phenomenon as an interaction sphere, the result of cultural exchange between previously separate groups. Probably due to factors of symbolic significance, more and more communities chose to join this attractive, dynamic sphere by adopting certain cultural practices on their own terms -- technological, architectural, ritual, or mortuary -- displaying no over-arching cultural uniformity as Cauvin suggested.

TRANSFORMATION AND THE CERAMIC NEOLITHIC 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. Rollefson, working at 'Ain Ghazal, shows a dramatic population rise, over-exploitation of the fragile environment, followed by a rapid demographic crash. Communities then dispersed into smaller groups either farming or practicing nomadic pastoralism. Some may have maintained permanent villages while individuals migrated seasonally with flocks.

Syria and Turkey Here, 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. Only Çatalhöyük survived, but for still unknown reasons, it too was abandoned some centuries later, c. 6200 BC. Several small sites later appeared in the area but no large settlement ever replaced it.

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. These had simpler architecture than earlier sites, but produced distinctive and technologically sophisticated pottery. Projectile points, however, show continuity. In the eastern "hilly flanks" of southwest Iran, Hole and Flannery found no aceramic Neolithic settlements. Instead, they found sites like Ali Kosh on the edge of alluvial plains. While Ali Kosh was near water resources, others were not. They must have already been learning to manipulate groundwater resources, moving toward irrigation.

Along with these changes, the rich architecture, imagery and symbolism of the aceramic Neolithic period also disappeared.

Box Features

Key Site: Ohalo II: Epipaleolithic Lifeways in the Levant
Key Site: Eynan
Key Site: Abu Hureyra: The Transition from Foraging to Farming
Key Site: Jerf el Ahmar: A Neolithic Village
Key Site: 'Ain Ghazal
Key Site: Çatalhöyük
Key Site: Göbekli Tepe: Religious Structures before Agriculture

Key words and terms Chapter 6

Southwest Asia
geographical variety
Zagros Mountains
Taurus Mountains
foothills, intermontane valleys
Great Konya lake
Negev Desert, Sinai, Jordan, Syria
Mount Carmel hills
Euphrates Valley
Konya plain
Mediterranean coast
Euphrates-Tigris plain
Khorammabad Valley.
Khuzistan Plain

Last Glacial Maximum
climatic diversity
warming trend
Younger Dryas

Cultural phases
Epipaleolithic, Early; Late
Aceramic (pre-pottery) Neolithic
Ceramic Neolithic

Species, habitats
wild wheat, barley, legumes
wild sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle
nuclear zone
Fertile Crescent
Hilly Flanks
domesticates of wild species

caves, rockshelters. Open air sites
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
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
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
wall, ditch, tower at Jericho
architecture, painting and plaster modeling at Çatalhöyük
burials under house floors
storage and food preparation buildings
ritual buildings
"skull building"
stone monoliths; pillars
skull caches
clay-modeled skulls

broad-spectrum revolution
agricultural revolution
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
mobile hunter-gatherers
semi-sedentary and sedentary hunter-gatherers
complex hunter-gatherers
reduced mobility
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
first occupation of Mesopotamia
new settlement of Mediterranean Coast

Technology, artifacts
geometric (triangles, rhombuses)
crescent (lunate)
pounding (mortar and pestle)
grinding (querns and grinders)
sickle blades
silica polish
imported black basalt
decorated tools
dentalium shells
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

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