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Near East Kingdoms

Early Cultures

 

Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Culture (Neolithic) (Levant & Near East)
c.8800 - 6000 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 (abbreviated to PPNA). In turn the PPNA evolved into the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture (or PPNB).

The PPNB marked the arrival of full agricultural domestication in the Fertile Crescent. This period lasts longer than its predecessor and is divided by archaeologists into early, middle, and late phases. It is best characterised by its act of witnessing the dawn of identifiable food production and its rapid outwards spread. The dominance of domesticated plants amounts to more than eighty percent of archaeological remains when looking at this period.

Dietary progress came hand-in-hand with substantial population growth. By this time large agricultural villages existed of up to ten hectares in size, from the southern Levant to central Anatolia, with an extrusion into the northern and central Zagros foothills of Iran where it met the tail end of the fading Zarzian culture in time - most likely - to be responsible for supplying the M'lefaatian culture through large population migration (and potentially some violence when interacting with Zarzian folk, as shown by embedded projectile points in some PPN burials).

The number of reported PPN sites are relatively small though. Some remained occupied and were later built up into cities which remained viable for millennia, or which remain occupied even today. Many others have been lost to post-glacial sea-level rise which did not end until about 5000 BC. The Mediterranean coast contains many drowned settlement sites, and research of them has barely begun.

A core origin location is uncertain. Scholarly opinion favours the northern Levant or southern Anatolia, but no specific location is available. Cultural traits seem to support this as they appear to have a north-to-south progression. Obsidian has purely Anatolian sources but can be found in more southerly locations, while einkorn wheat and chickpeas originate from the Anatolia/Levant border region, as do domesticated animals (sheep and goats especially) and even the earliest unfired pottery and rectilinear architecture (rectangular houses instead of circular ones).

To make it more difficult, the culture's most technologically-advanced aspects are to be found in the southern Levant, where the PPNB may have matured to its peak. PPNA folk in the south, though, seem briefly to have abandoned settlements prior to PPNB reoccupation, suggesting a cultural and perhaps even regional population replacement in the south by a new wave of arriving northerners. The culture took its time to penetrate the Harifian culture of the Negev, however.

Dating for the PPNB 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.

FeatureThe site of the future Canaanite city of Gebal was first occupied during this period, although not permanently. This period also covers Göbekli Tepe's 'Phase II' (see feature link), plus the associated Faiyum culture in Egypt and the Fikirtepe in north-western Anatolia.

Skulls were routinely removed from the dead (as had also been the case during the Natufian and PPNA). Apparently they were venerated as ancestors by placing them in houses and even having their once-living facial features recreated in clay, painted and, during the PPNB, 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 (as mentioned, 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 Fertile Crescent prior to 5000 BC was a good deal larger than it is today.


Neolithic farmers in the Levant

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 Gobekli Tepe (Visual Arts Cork), and Ancient civilisation buried under eastern Turkey (The Spectator), and Neolithic stone mask unveiled (Heritage Daily).)

c.8800 BC

The Levant's Pre-Pottery Neolithic B culture (or PPNB) succeeds the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) and Shepherd Neolithic cultures. This not only appears in the Levant, it also quickly expands farther south, north, east (towards the Zagros Mountains), and west (into Anatolia).

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

This is the early phase of the culture, during which the farming revolution is still finding its feet. It the east it encounters the Zarzian culture, and perhaps creates the circumstances for its replacement by the M'lefaatian culture.

c.8700 BC

Although it emerges as a successor to the Zarzian culture, the M'lefaatian industry is generally counted as being a descended form of the PPNA, brought in by Neolithic Farmer migrants from the west despite the PPNA already having changed in the Levant.

c.8600 BC

The highly-localised Mureybetian sub-phase of the PPNA has existed for about seven hundred years on the west bank of the Euphrates (in today's Raqqa governorate of northern Syria). Now it fades into the PPNB, just two centuries or so after the PPNA itself had transitioned in the same direction.

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.8500 BC

Certainly by now, at the start of the middle phase of the PPNB, the full complement of Fertile Crescent cereals, legumes, and animals have joined the farming repertoire.

The PPNB way of life has reached Cappadocia and the Konya plain in western-central Anatolia (today's Turkey), as well as the shores of the Dead Sea, and Iran's Zagros mountain foothills (in the form of the M'lefaatian).

c.8300 BC

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic site of Gre Filla in central Anatolia is constructed around this point. It remains in use until about 7600 BC, coincidentally (or perhaps not) close to the adoption of fully-domesticated cultivation.

c.8200 BC

Goat-herding may be adopted around this time in western Iranian sites such as Ganj Dareh. The similar Ali Kosh contains finds which suggest an early adoption of sheep domestication.

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)

Both are signs that pastoralism arrives in the east before agriculture, taken up by people of the late Zarzian or at the very dawn of M'lefaatian influence. The dry Deh Luran plain in which Ali Kosh is located does not contain any of the pre-domestication wild cereals.

c.8000 BC

By this date the PPNB Sultanian sub-phase is first appearing at Jericho, and the PPNB finally enters the Negev Desert to terminate the Harifian. An organised community has become capable of building a massive stone wall around the settlement, which is strengthened at one point before this date by the addition of massive stone towers (although these may even predate the wall).

In the same approximate period PPNA-founded settlements in Anatolia exist from at least this date, and perhaps earlier given their PPNA origins. Both are major settlements - at Aşıklı Höyük in the later Cappadocia and Boncuklu on the Konya plain, directly north of the Taurus Mountains (and north of Cyprus).

Harifian site of Abu Salem
Abu Salem is the oldest-known site (by 2023) in the Negev Desert to have early Neolithic affinities, as seen during the Epi-Palaeolithic (or proto-Neolithic) Harifian and also during the subsequent Pre-Pottery Neolithic

Both exhibit the transition from PPNA circular houses to PPNB rectangular ones, but neither exhibits traces of farming. Instead they seem to be pastoralist societies on the edge of the Fertile Crescent's farming belt, just like early societies of the M'lefaatian at the eastern end of the belt. Boncuklu's population may even continue a bit of hunter-gathering on the side to supplement their diet.

Pastoralism and early farming are being adopted, the former requiring the gradual domestication of wild cattle types (initially focused in eastern Anatolia). About the same time the religious constructions of Göbekli Tepe are deliberately being buried. Possibly the temple is no longer required.

FeatureThe site is theorised to be a celebration of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, something with which the large majority of farming PPNB folk have little connection (see feature link). Instead, figures of females, so-called 'Mother Goddess' types, now become widespread.

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.7600 BC

With the tools of the PPNB now heavily infiltrating the South Caucasus, the localised PPNA-influenced culture of the Trialetian fades out, presumably in favour of others in the broader region such as the Chokh and Imereti.

Perhaps only coincidentally, the PPNA-influenced M'lefaatian also fades out now, in favour of the PPNB (although M'lefaatian migration into the Caucasus has also been suggested as a reason for this change).

c.7500 - 7000 BC

Neolithic Farmers now enter a phase of fully-domesticated cultivation, by which time non-shattering grains account for eighty percent or more of total archaeological remains, with other, wild plant foods retreating into minor status. At this point the Sultanian PPNB sub-phase fades out in favour of full PPNB adoption.

Trialetian body from the Kotias Klde rockshelter
DNA was extracted from the molar teeth of this skeleton which can be dated almost to 8000 BC as part of the Trialetian group of Neolithic-influenced Mesolithic cultures of the Caucasus, with the skeleton being found in the Kotias Klde rock shelter in western Georgia

Many of those other wild plant foods are later to be domesticated alongside developing urbanisation, especially in terms of Fertile Crescent foods such as figs, olives, dates, and grapes.

Crop-based agricultural communities may already have appeared in the foothills of the Zagros mountains as part of the former M'lefaatian industry. In southern Anatolia the PPN settlement of Hacilar first appears (around 7040 BC, and surviving in use until the fourth millennium BC).

c.7200 BC

The famous site of Çatalhöyük is founded around now (and the Fikirtepe cultural type site is not far behind it). Food production is certainly a mainstay of the economy here.

A body from the Fikirtepe settlement of Pendik
Excavations at the Fikirtepe cultural settlement of Pendik (now within the eastern boundaries of Istanbul) have revealed that the settlement's ancient residents placed mussel shells below their houses to provide permeability, while burials were in the foetal position

In its classic phase the settlement is constructed as an almost solid network of conjoined single-storey rectangular rooms which are entered from above via ladders. Roofs are probably used for activities (the site is abandoned around 5900 BC, at the start of the Pottery Neolithic).

c.7000 BC

A fresh wave of arrivals into Jericho, possibly from more advanced centres in Syria, bring cultural depth and population increase to the town, but not pottery. This phase of advancement lasts a further millennium before the town seems largely to be abandoned for reasons unknown (although it coincides with the end of the PPNB and its own decline).

By this time domesticated sheep, goats, and tanged Byblos points of the PPNB have all reached the Arabian peninsula, penetrating as far south as Yemen. From there pastoralism eventually penetrates into the Horn of Africa to reach the Banta of the Urewe tradition.

Only sixteen stone face-masks from this period have been unearthed, many of which have been discovered in the southern area of the Mount Hebron-Jehuda Desert. They all share similar traits and characteristics in their production.

A Pre-Pottery Neolithic B face mask
Face masks in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic venerated dead ancestors, possibly in part to ensure continuity of ownership of valuable farming land, with this design including facial features which are perfect and symmetrical, even down to shaped cheekbones, an impressive nose, and a mouth showing the teeth

c.6500 BC

The Fertile Crescent's farming population is experiencing its second great boom at this time (the first being around 8500 BC around the end of the Zarzian and the beginning of the M'lefaatian in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains).

Anatolia is a hotspot of migration into Neolithic Farmer Europe, with the Sesklo culture already having formed in Greece and the Cardial Pottery and Karanovo cultures already in the process of being formed by further migrant bodies.

The Fikirtepe culture in western Anatolia is likely also a product of this migratory stream, just as the Faiyum culture is a product of further migration into the Nile region.

PPNB farming also reaches Mehrgarh on the edge of the Indus plains, where in time it will inform the rise of the Indus Valley civilisation there. By this time the use of fired earthenware pottery has begun, and this leaves distinct archaeological traces for future generations to examine, not only within PPNB settlements but in the early outward-migrant communities too.

Allahdino village
The small village of Allahdino lies forty kilometres to the east of Karachi City in Sindh province, not too far from the coast, having been abandoned by its Indus Valley occupants around 2000 BC

Settlement sizes in the Levant reach as much as sixteen hectares in ground space, leaving no doubt that these are occupied by food-producing populations. Mud bricks are commonly used to replace the old round houses of the Natufian and PPNA with rectangular dwellings which are sub-divided into rooms for specific purposes.

However, there are also indications of environmental decline in the southern Levant, fuelled by a combination of intense human activity, a climatic trend which tends to veer towards aridity, and by continuously-rising sea levels (which will not balance out until about 5000 BC).

Many PPNB sites gradually shrink or are eventually abandoned by the start of the succeeding Pottery Neolithic period, but with no great calamity to signal a dramatic ending. They simply fade and change or are finally abandoned after some attempts at clinging on prove pointless. Migration to Europe would certainly be one way out of this situation.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic face mask from the Judean desert in Israel
An example of a Pre-Pottery Neolithic face mask from Hirbat Duma in the Judean Desert, and dating to about 7000 BC, courtesy of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem

c.6400 BC

Perhaps as a result of the PPNB's various disruptions and decline, localised successors of the PPNB begin to appear in sites around the Levant as a prelude to the adoption of full-blown Pottery Neolithic period. The Yarmukian culture is one of the first sites to use pottery in what will become ancient Syria. The Lodian and Nizzanim also follow this progression.

c.6200 BC

The earliest layers of occupation for the city of Damascus date to between 6000-5000 BC. This is while the region's earliest nomadic pastoralists are extending southwards towards the Red Sea, at the tail end of the PPNB. Such early layers of occupation may not be permanent at first, but they soon became so.

However, the late PPNB is continuing its agricultural and economic decline, especially in the southern Levant. Towns also decline and pastoralism appears to flourish (especially with sheep and goats). Black clay pottery has come into common use, which is also to be found in PPNB migrant cultures in Africa, Europe, and adjacent regions of Asia.

Damascus wall
This colour photochrome print shows a wall in Damascus' defences which is rumoured to be the one over which St Paul escaped in the first century AD

The '8.2 kiloyear event' is a recognised climatic cooling event which persists for two hundred years and, when it relents, provides a climatic bounce-back which triggers the start of the Pottery Neolithic.

c.6100 BC

The Fikirtepe culture's Bahçelievler settlement is entering its last phase, the 'archaic'. Some specific tools which had appeared in the settlement's early stages have since disappeared, presumably as the skilled craftsmen who had been needed to make them have joined the ongoing migratory flow into the Balkans.

Recently-founded cultures there include the Criş, Kakanj, Karanovo, Starčevo, Arukhlo, Shengavit, Shulaveri-Shomu (in approximate order of founding), any of which could be the beneficiaries of the Fikirtepe's loss.

Cucuteni-Tripolye supertown
This artist's reconstruction depicts the Neolithic farming Cucuteni-Tripolye culture supertown of Maidanetske in what is now Ukraine, with European settlement sizes reaching immense proportions (External Link: Creative Commons Licence 4.0 International)

c.6000 BC

Further afield, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) extensions and influences develop into the Hassuna and Samarra in early Mesopotamia, the Greece of the European Neolithic Farmer Sesklo culture, the Khirokitia of Cyprus, and the Faiyum Neolithic of lower Egypt.

In the Near East itself, the Levant's PPNB develops directly into the succeeding Pottery Neolithic, with the Neolithic Farmer Lodian, Nizzanim, and Yarmukian cultures all having provided localised pockets of its arrival ahead of its main adoption.

 
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