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Near East Kingdoms

Early Cultures

 

Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Culture (Neolithic) (Levant & Near East)
c.9500 - 8800 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.

Moves towards full-farming went through ever-improving steps being taken towards the creation of civilisation, most notably during the Natufian period. The subsequent Khiamian accelerated the process as an early phase of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (which is usually abbreviated to PPNA).

Under the PPNA, archaeology shows that plants and animals continued to be wild-farmed rather than domesticated. The difference for the PPNA was that some truly remarkable early stone constructions were now being erected, such as that of Göbekli Tepe, which hinted at new degrees of social complexity. Houses remained circular with stone foundations in the usual hunter-gatherer style, with a single shared space inside. Community buildings were similar, but larger, and all buildings had lime-plastered floors.

FeatureMonumental building was different though. Göbekli Tepe's 'Phase I' occurred during this period (see feature link). This construction was erect by 9000 BC at the latest, and possibly as early as 10,000 BC. Evidence of any domestic use is entirely lacking, with no settlements being located nearby. Human skeletons have been unearthed in telling positions though, something which indicates a potential funerary complex.

Skulls were routinely removed from the dead (as had also been the case during the Natufian). Apparently they were venerated as ancestors by placing them in houses, and they even had their once-living facial features recreated in clay, painted and, during the subsequent Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, given cowrie shells for eyes. Part of this may have been be tied to the concept of ownership (of land) through descent.

With large and heavily-populated settlements, descent may have been a vital part of retaining control over farming land. Unfortunately the post-glacial ice melt was still causing worldwide sea levels to rise (which they would continue to do until around 5000 BC). The result was that many PPN sites on the Mediterranean coast became flooded over time, with a resultant loss of farming land (and hereditary possession).

The earliest city-building began during this period. The site of Jericho saw its first stone buildings and defensive works starting to appear in what had originated as a Natufian hunter-gatherer settlement. The descendants of those hunters now began the formation of an organised community which soon built up a massive stone wall around its settlement. Çatalhöyük also developed as a city (from perhaps 10,000 BC, and lasting until about 2000 BC), and today it is a Unesco 'World Heritage' site.

Dating for the PPNA is somewhat variable, with start and end dates both being framed in various ways by various experts. The dates used here fit best into the established chronology, but they can be extended by some experts to cover at least half a millennium of earlier time (which would subsume the Khiamian into the PPNA as a phase rather than a sub-culture in its own right).

Present evidence would suggest that cereals were cultivated and exploited across a large part of the Fertile Crescent, including in the eastern part of this zone. The full transition to domestication, however, was largely restricted to the northern and southern Levant. A spread of partially domesticated crops into ancient Anatolia and Cyprus, and potentially into what is now Iraq, occurred only during the later part of the PPNA.

Bread or beer may have been the trigger for the sudden expansion of settlements and monumental sites, although the 'bread and beer' theory remains contested. The discovery of beer may even have been the trigger for the domestication of barley, again a disputed claim. The earliest substantiated claim for bread-making dates to 6600 BC (with that claim being dated to 2024 - and see 'World's oldest bread' in the sources).

The widespread PPNA influenced the Trialetian in the South Caucasus, primarily through the M'lefaatian culture, and has been linked by some experts to the Shan Koba Mesolithic of Crimea. It certainly affected the Kobuleti culture of Georgia. The proto-Neolithic site of Hallan Çemi in south-eastern Anatolia was also a PPNA location, and the culture played a part in the Early Aceramic Neolithic on Cyprus.


Neolithic farmers in the Levant

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 Palaeolithic of the Western Steppe Zone, Karol Szymczak (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct), and Kobuleti site: The Evidence of Early Holocene Occupation in Western Georgia, Guram Chkhatarashvili & Valery Manko (Documenta Praehistorica, No 47, 28-35, and available via ResearchGate), 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), and World’s oldest bread (CNN), and Gobekli Tepe (Visual Arts Cork), and Ancient civilisation buried under eastern Turkey (The Spectator).)

c.9500 BC

The Levant's widespread Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture succeeds the Natufian culture of early Neolithic Farmers (with the name generally being abbreviated to PPNA). These first farmers do not use baked clay pottery, something which only comes into common use after about 7000 BC (under the later Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture).

Map of the Fertile Crescent of the Neolithic
This map shows the general area of the Fertile Crescent from where - especially along its northern edges - the origins of agricultural farming emerged between about 10,000-6000 BC (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Vessels do exist however, in the form of lime plaster, or hollowed-out limestone. Such vessels are found at the important Anatolian site of Göbekli Tepe. Animal skins could also be used as vessels, certainly in the large settlement site of Çatalhöyük which is already thriving. It is also during this period that PPNA settlements show signs of population increase and some outward expansion as migrants find fresh ground to farm.

Settlements with PPNA-period circular houses appear in the upper Tigris valley - such as Nemrik and Hallan Çemi - and in the Zagros foothills to intrude upon the Zarzian culture (possibly violently, as some Nemrik burials contain embedded projectile points) - such as at Tepe Asiab.

None of the new sites have the monumental stone constructions of sites in Anatolia and the Levant. Only the longer-established communities in the west are doing this. Those in the east perhaps have to focus their efforts on settlement and the start of farming practises in fresh territory.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic house at Beidha
The Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) lasted in the Levant until the middle of the sixth millennium BC, but the lack of pottery certainly did not prevent rapid advances in early farming techniques and the creation of settled town life, as shown by this sample PPN house at Beidha

c.9300 BC

Around now a PPNA sub-phase appears in the form of the Mureybetian. This culture appears on the west bank of the Euphrates (in today's Raqqa governorate of northern Syria), on a settlement mound or tell. It is a PPNA sub-phase which sees the development of older semi-sedentary Khiamian settlement details into those of a true sedentary people.

c.9200 BC

Early constitutive elements of emerging early farming soon merge to create sedentary communities which are increasingly reliant upon domesticated plants and animals. Around this point in time Pre-Pottery Neolithic B 'farming villages' first appear in the Euphrates valley. They rapidly spread in use throughout the Near East.

Mureybetian town remains
Phases 3A and 3B of the Mureybet type site date to 9300-8600 BC and represent the Mureybetian culture, a sub-phase of the PPNA which saw architecture diversify, with rectangular, multi-cellular buildings appearing next to the older round buildings of the Khiamian culture

c.9000 BC

FeatureThis is the latest date by which time the main stones have been erected at Göbekli Tepe (and possibly from as early as 10,000 BC). Evidence of any domestic use is entirely lacking. No remains exist nearby of settled human habitation, but human skeletons are found in telling positions, indicating a potential funerary complex (see feature link).

The site of the future city of Jericho is also settled around this time, having initially been a Natufian hunter-gatherer settlement. Their descendants now begin the formation of an organised community which soon builds a massive stone wall around the settlement.

Sculptured pillar at Gobekli Tepe
The site of Göbekli Tepe proves that hunter-gatherers were capable of complex art and organised religion, with the carving of a boar, and ducks flying into nets, seemingly celebrating the chase, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, before their way of life went out of style with the onset of the farming craze

c.8800 BC

The Levant's Pre-Pottery Neolithic A culture in the Fertile Crescent transitions into its next stage as the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, seemingly taking the Epi-Palaeolithic Shepherd Neolithic culture along with it. The Harifian first emerges in the Negev Desert at the far south of the Fertile Crescent's reach.

 
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