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Near East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Natufian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic) (Levant)
c.12,500 - 9700 BC

The term 'Fertile Crescent' refers to a geographical area in the Near East which arcs between the Jordan Valley of the Levant and the Euphrates and Tigris estuary. It also reaches up into southern and central Anatolia (modern Turkey), which is part of the northern Syrian zone in which true farming first seems to have occurred. It was in this Fertile Crescent that the distant effects of the most recent ice age faded perhaps the quickest, which allowed Neolithic Farmer processes to be undertaken in small but significant steps.

The bridge between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic in the Near East and, specifically, in the Levant is the Epi-Palaeolithic. This period can also be referred to as the proto-Neolithic. Starting with late Epi-Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, the move towards full-farming went through ever-improving steps being taken towards the creation of civilisation.

Early wheat types had grain which was contained in spikelets with tightly adhering glumes, but this had to be domesticated in stages before wheat could be made fully productive. This process took a few millennia on its own. The Natufian was a sedentary or semi-sedentary culture which emerged immediately prior to the start of this process, starting out with a firm hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The culture was influential and highly important beyond its core region. Succeeding the Kebaran culture it influenced the Trialetian culture and its various branches in the Caucasus. It was contemporary (just about) with the late-arriving Harifian of the Negev Desert, and also with the Zarzian of the Zagros mountains region of Iran, the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent. That last one, however, was a Mesolithic culture which already close to being replaced. It was also contemporary in its later years with the localised Shepherd Neolithic culture of the Levant's Beqaa Valley.

It is likely to be either the Natufian or succeeding Khiamian cultures which supplied the first modern humans to reach Early Cyprus, during its Akrotiri period. Dates for the first arrival of hunter-gatherers there were pushed back in 2024, making the Natufian the more likely culprit. The Natufian also preceded the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A in Anatolia.

Both the Northern European Ahrensburg and Bromme cultures could be a product of the first major warming period at the end of the most recent ice age. Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology points out that Europeans now became more closely related to populations from the Near East, the Caucasus, and Turkey to coincide with this warming period.

Such a migratory influx could reflect an early expansion of people from the Near East and south-eastern Europe across the rest of Europe, apparently displacing previous populations.

From the thirteenth millennium BC of the Natufian, funerary treatment was orientated towards inhumation in graves. This followed a trend which had been initiated in the local early Epi-Palaeolithic, from about 21,000 BC as at the influential Ohalo site or Ein Gev I. Early Natufian mortuary customs were very varied. Individual burials tend to dominate, but the first evidence of collective graves can certainly be observed, with multiple burials also including simultaneous inhumations.

Neolithic farmers in the Levant

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The Village People, Matti Friedman (Smithsonian, July-August 2023), from The spread of Neolithic plant economies from the Near East to northwest Europe: a phylogenetic analysis, Fiona Coward, Stephen Shennan, Sue Colledge, James Conolly, & Mark Collard (Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol 35, Issue 1, January 2008, pp 42-56), from First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Peter Bellwood (Second Ed, Wiley-Blackwell, 2022), and from External Links: Tracing the Origin and Spread of Agriculture in Europe, Ron Pinhasi, Joaquim Fort, & Albert J Ammerman (PLOS Biology, published online 29 Nov 2005), and Archaeobotany: Plant Domestication, Chris Stevens & Leilani Lucas (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct), and When the First Farmers Arrived... (Scientific American), and The Genetic History of Ice Age Europe (Nature 2016), and Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and Evidence for domestication of the dog 12,000 years ago in the Natufian of Israel, S Davis & F Valla (Nature 276, 608-610, 1978), and Farming Was So Nice, It Was Invented at Least Twice, Michael Balter (Science, 2013), and The emergence of the Neolithic in the Near East: A protracted and multi-regional model, Juan José Ibáñez, Jesus González-Urquijo, Luis Cesar Teira-Mayolini, & Talía Lazuén (Science Direct, 2018), and The flow of ideas: shared symbolism during the Neolithic emergence in Southwest Asia: WF16 and Göbekli Tepe, Steven Mithen, Amy Richardson, & Bill Finlayson (Cambridge University Press, 2023).)

c.12,500 BC

The Levant's Epi-Palaeolithic Kebaran culture is now succeeded by the proto-Neolithic Farmer Natufian culture. Early period mortuary customs are varied, but inhumation dominates, whether individual (the primary form) or collective (sometimes with several inhumations taking place at the same time).

Kebaran stone tools
Microliths were used in spear points and arrowheads, but Kebaran microliths showed a degree of change from the older Levantine Aurignacian examples

c.11,000 BC

The wide-ranging Epigravettian culture in Europe is beginning to shrink back towards its core. In its wake it is leaving behind many localised variations along its former eastern stretches. These are appearing especially in the northern Black Sea steppe region and into the North Caucasus, with the Danubian Iron Gates culture and the Crimean Shan Koba culture appearing early.

In the Caucasus mountain range, the archaeological label of Trialetian industry supposedly covers several newly-emergent cultures here, with these being the Black Sea, Chokh, Gubs, Imereti, and Trialetian. As well as potential Epigravettian influences, this area is also being influenced by the Natufian culture.

Palaeolithic pendants from western Georgia
These pendants date from the late Palaeolithic in western Georgia, just as the region was tipping over into the Mesolithic, a little ahead of less advanced Northern European regions

c.10,800 BC

The transition to agricultural and plant/animal domestication in the Fertile Crescent takes a significant step forwards even as the Younger Dryas introduces a swift return to glacial conditions and temperatures.

Strangely, and perhaps contradictory, this seems not to inhibit population growth in the Fertile Crescent. The average size of settlements in the archaeological record shows that these also increase.

Some estimates have suggested a tenfold increase in population size between the start and end of the Younger Dryas, which seems to be driven by Natufian improvements. Little hard evidence survives due to soil conditions, but there are hints of wild cereals being widely exploited, especially barley and its use in bread and beer.

Natufian small stone face
The Nahal Ein Gev II stone face was produced by people of the Natufian culture as part of a regionally-dominant trend which continued into the Natufian's successor culture, although strong localised variations did emerge

c.10,500 BC

The European Mesolithic Sursko-Dnieper culture emerges in areas of central Ukraine and southern Russia. It is suspected to have developed under the influence of Neolithic migrants - most probably of the Natufian - who have mostly likely trickled along the Black Sea shoreline to avoid the mountains of the Caucasus.

c.10,000 BC

As the localised Shepherd Neolithic emerges in the Levant, hunter-gatherers become active on the island of Cyprus, especially at two pre-Neolithic sites at Nissi Beach, at Ayia Napa, and on the Aspro water causeway in the Akamas. They probably reach Cyprus from the coast of the Levant, although this is disputed.

It is quite possible that these arrivals bring with them domesticated animals, and perhaps even a few wild ones, such as foxes. Early cattle dies out during the eighth millennium BC and is not reintroduced until at least the Sotira period.

Nissia Neolithic site on Cyprus
The Nissia Neolithic settlement on Cyprus is located to the south of Vyzakia beach, in the area of Protaras, with its archaeological discoveries coming under the Neolithic B period of 5200-4800 BC

c.9800 BC

It is possible that domesticated wheat which has been found in the Zarzian culture's early farming village of Chogha Golan has been introduced there from farther west, specifically the western Fertile Crescent of the Natufian. The Chogha Golan wheat is several hundred years younger than the earliest known domesticated species.

With its large amphitheatre-like building (Structure O75), the site of WF16 is another candidate for a seasonal or periodic gathering place in the southern Levant. WF16 is located at the head of the Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan. The site is excavated between AD 2008-2010 and is dated to the period between 9800-8200 BC, with a focus of activity between 9400-9100 BC (see sources for the full report on 'The flow of ideas').

Palegawra cave in Iraqi Kurdistan
Palegawra cave, which sits alongside the neighbouring Zarzi, type site for the Zarzian culture, has been an emblematic site of the Epi-Palaeolithic cultural horizon in the north-western Zagros Mountains

c.9700 BC

FeatureThe transition to agricultural and plant/animal domestication in the Fertile Crescent takes a significant step forwards. The glacial climate cooling of the Younger Dryas from about 10,800 BC now begins to fade. Now the early Holocene sees a transition to a warmer, wetter, and arguably more stable climate between this point at about 7500 BC (and see feature link).

The Fertile Crescent is blessed with its location in what is now becoming a region of winter rainfall with marked rainfall seasonality. People here begin the process of evolving out of an Epi-Palaeolithic/Mesolithic baseline of complex hunting and gathering.

North American large mammals
The Younger Dryas cold spell hit North America hard, just when things were starting to warm up at the end of the ice age - not only did many of the large mammals die out but so did the Clovis culture (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Alongside this they begin to develop sedentary settlements. Wild and eventually domesticated cereals, legumes, and herd animals acquire dominant roles in human subsistence throughout the Near East, in association with human population growth and the rise of cooperative activities which lead to the growth of villages and towns.

c.9700 BC

As the Younger Dryas comes to an end and the climate warms up, the Levant's pre-Neolithic Farmer Natufian culture fades in favour of a great progression towards full-farming in the form of the Khiamian culture.

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