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The road to riches

Farming in Europe began in the
Near East
Programme one


8,000 BC - 650 BC

About 40,000 years ago, archaeologists believe that humans had made the final evolutionary jump to become what is called "modern" humans.

With brains fully formed, early modern humans could talk, fashion elaborate tools and co-operate to hunt. They also had new desires and wants and could imagine ways of achieving them. In short they became clever and greedy.

But economically, their activity was limited to hunting and gathering. This activity involved encyclopaedic knowledge of the natural world as well as the exchange of a few precious and unusual items - shells for instance, which turn up hundreds of miles from the sea and are thought to have been passed from group to group.

But essentially it was a world of simple structures: small groups of humans, possessing only what they could carry, their group size limited by what they could catch or collect as food.
Excavations at Wadi Feynan in Turkey
Excavations at Wadi Faynan
Farming emerges

Then, about 10,000 years ago something happened that would change human life: people began to settle down - at first for only part of the year - and actively cultivate crops. Farming began independently in a number of different parts of the world, but it was the Near East that pioneered farming for much of Europe.

This is where the Road to Riches begins. Once humans had mastered farming, they could generate a surplus freeing others from the task of hunting for food. People had time to build houses, trade and fight - in other words civilisation was born.

But archaeologists are still puzzling over what pushed humans to abandon a way of life that they had led for tens of thousands of years. The mystery deepened when analysis of bones from early settlements revealed smaller, weaker and sicker humans apparently worse off than their hunter gatherer neighbours.

Research on the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers in the modern world revealed another facet: far from leading exhausting lives, hunter- gatherers had far more leisure time than their worn-out farming neighbours and seemed relatively well fed.

Environmental crisis

It is now thought that farming in the Near East was born of crisis. Analysis of the polar ice caps has revealed that around 13,000 years ago the climate got warmer and wetter. Over a period of 2,000 years humans were tempted to settle down for part of the time and live off the abundance that grew all around, including off the wild varieties of barley and wheat.

CLICK HERE to watch Professor Steve Mithen of Reading University discuss the excavations at Wadi Faynan in Jordan and the emergence of farming 10,000 years ago

Then, 11,000 years ago, it got colder and drier. Analysis of seeds from that era show plants and animals dying off progressively, except certain species such as wheat and barley. Humans had been forced to make a difficult choice: they couldn't go back to their old way of life, so they chose to stay put and cultivate. Farming was born.

Within a 1,000 years, the fruits of farming were visible. Larger, more complex settlements began to emerge. One of the most intriguing is being excavated at Catal Huyuk in Turkey.A once crowded community that was home to about 10,000 people, the settlement has yielded a wealth of artefacts that the archaeologists are struggling to interpret.

A child holding obsidian
which was processed into tools
The obsidian puzzle

In many of the houses large pits full of buried obsidian (volcanic glass) were found: were these buried because they were valuable, like money? The skeletons from the site also seem to be healthy, and show none of the morbidity of their early farming cousins. These people were doing well, so well in fact that some archaeologists have speculated that the whole town had cornered the obsidian trade from the nearby mountain.

What is certain is that specialised goods were being exchanged across huge distances as long ago as 8,000 years before the present day. Excavations at the source of the obsidian, the mountain Hasan Dag, have revealed that several groups were at work processing it into tools, all with slightly different designs.

More remarkable still is that the finished tools turn up hundreds of miles away. Were they traded there, or made especially for different regions? Was this the first factory?

For more concrete evidence of long distance trade and specialisation, you have to travel east, to the civilisation that grew up in the fertile plains in what is now called Iraq.

Ziggurat at Ur
Ur: one of the first cities
The first cities

By about 4,000 BC, the plains were being settled by small communities. The area presented a challenge and an opportunity that humans had not encountered before: two huge rivers that could flood if left unmanaged, but if controlled, could irrigate a huge area.

The key was organisation. By 1,000 years later these communities had mastered the art of irrigation and blossomed into the world's earliest cities.

By around 3,100 BC the city of Uruk was home to between 25,000 and 50,000 people: a huge settlement. From the ramparts of the city wall it would have been possible to see other, smaller cities taking shape.

It was an urban environment unlike anything that had existed before. Excavations have revealed palaces, huge temples, public meeting spaces and domestic housing. The excavations from these early levels also turned up thousands of clay tablets covered in symbols: writing.

It is only in the past 20 years that historians have come to realise how important writing was to the economic life of these early civilizations.

Cuneiform tablets
Early cuneiform tablets
The first writing

The earliest written tablets date from 3,200-3,100 BC. Over the next 1,000 years they evolved into complex writing, which was deciphered and translated in the 19th century.

But the early tablets remained a mystery, until a team based in Berlin led by Prof Hans Nissen, applied a mathematical approach with the help of computers. What they found was a fantastically complicated system involving different symbols for counting different quantities of objects. They were also surprised to find how large the quantities of these goods were: one tablet refers to an amount of 135,000 litres of barley that were accounted for over a period of 37 months.

"This was a centralised economy. They collected lots of foods and other raw materials in central stores and then they distributed them from these central stores to the people. You had a large amount of everything and to keep track of it was quite difficult without writing. Writing came into being for economic reasons, but they recognised right away that it was also a tool for exerting power and keeping control over the people." Prof Hans Nissen, Free University of Berlin

For nearly 400 years, writing was only used for economic record keeping, before it became a means to record other things, like literature and poetry.

Standard of Ur
The Standard of Ur
By 2,000 BC the cities of the Sumerian plain had developed into elaborate societies. At their head was an elite that was clearly rich. Documents from royal palaces mention lavish banquets, with beer cooled by ice from the mountains and surrounded with valuables brought from far away.

The Standard of Ur, a Sumerian artefact in the British museum reveals the civilisation's trade links.

"It depicts a scene on a blue background, and the blue is provided by lapis lazuli, the precious stone imported from Afghanistan. The figures are white, and they are in shells, seashells brought up from the Gulf. And the whole thing is stuck like a mosaic onto the base with black bitumen, which must have been imported several hundred kilometres downstream from here on the Euphrates. So the whole thing tells us about the network of trade which the Sumerian civilisation had set up way outside the frontiers of Mesopotamia proper." Professor Nicholas Postgate, Cambridge University

A similar network of independent cities was not to be repeated for another 1,000 years. But the building blocks of civilisation laid down by the Sumerians, which included trading networks, legal systems, writing and mathematics, were adopted by those who came after them. And the Sumerian practise of using weighed amounts of silver as a means of payment and accounting was to lead eventually to the next step forward on the road to riches: the invention of coins.

Further Reading

The Prehistory of the Mind. A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. Steven Mithen, Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, M.Roaf, Oxford, 1990

Early Mesopotamian Society and Economy at the Dawn of History, J,N Postgate, Routledge, 1994

Archaic Bookkeeping. Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. Hans J. Nissen, Peter Damerow, Robert K. Englund, The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Sumer and the Sumerians, Harriet Crawford, 1991 Cambridge University Press.

Ancient Mesopotamia, A. Leo. Oppenheimer, University of Chicago Press 1977.

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Behind the scenes

BBC Two:
20.00 hrs 9 July 2000


Excavations at Wadi Faynan
Excavations at Çatalhöyük
Berlin Museum of Asiatic antiquities
Mesopotamia: Index of Resources

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