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Near East Kingdoms

Early Cultures


Sultanian Culture (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) (Levant)
c.8000 - 7400 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 Sultanian was a sub-culture or regional variant of the PPNB. It was centred around the Jordan river valley and southern Levant, with a type site at the ancient city of Jericho in today's Palestinian West Bank. Other sites include Netiv HaGdud, El-Khiam, Hatoula, and Nahal Oren.

This culture's tools and other artefacts can be seen as being a development of the Khiamian, with the El Khiam lithic point of the Khiamian culture remaining relevant as part of the assemblage, although microliths disappeared in favour of bifacial core knapped stone tools, alongside axes and adzes.

This period witnessed the appearance of the first real villages in this region, alongside a marked hierarchy of site sizes. Its distribution is confined to low-lying areas, especially around the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, as well as the western base of the central mountain ridge. Sites have been located in well-watered areas, mainly adjacent to springs and ponds, and on alluvial fans upon which soil was being replenished by erosion further up-stream.

Circular housing construction continued, but innovations were appearing in terms of building materials, such as the wattle-and-daub walls which also appeared across large areas of Anatolia, and mud brick walls in some areas. Changes also occurred in terms of settlement intensity, with occupational layers becoming increasingly influenced by human interaction.

The first clear evidence emerged for communal constructional endeavours, largely in the form of the retaining wall, cultic towers, and associated storage installations at Jericho. Artistic representations evolved, with the appearance of clay figurines and the human figure, mainly female, taking precedence over the animal representations of earlier hunter-gatherer cultures. Continuity was reflected by post-mortem skull removal, as was the case with the broader cultural zone.

At the subsistence level, waterfowl and migratory birds had largely replaced the previous intensive exploitation of medium-sized mammals. Indirect evidence for cereal and legume cultivation has also been found. Actual domestication, however, did not occur in adjacent regions, such as at Tel Aswad, until towards the end of the period. What remained important though was the intensive collection of wild crops to be used as food supplements.

The organisation of the region's social system probably underwent certain changes in the face of increased community sizes. In the south, sites are almost totally absent since conditions there were particularly harsh. However, the small, seasonal occupation at Abu Madi I in the southern Sinai high mountains may represent vestigial, Harifian-related populations attempting to continue a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle through the adoption of a few Khiamian traits.

The Sultanian represents part of an extensive interaction network, one which extended from the Dead Sea region to the middle Euphrates and beyond, to the Tigris and Zagros foothills. Obsidian from central Anatolia reached the southern Levant from this time onwards, already having appeared sporadically even in the final Natufian and Harifian.

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), from The articulation of cultural processes and Late Quaternary environmental changes in Cisjordan, N Goring-Morris & Anna Belfer-Cohen (Paléorient, Vol 23, No 2, 1997), and from External Links: Archaeobotany: Plant Domestication, Chris Stevens & Leilani Lucas (Reference Module in Social Sciences, 2023, available via Science Direct), and The Sultanian Flint Assemblage from Gesher and its Implications for Recognizing Early Neolithic Entities in the Levant, Yosef Garfinkel & Dani Nadel (Paléorient, 1989, and available via ResearchGate).)

c.8000 BC

By this date the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (or PPNB) Sultanian sub-phase first appears at Jericho, which has been inhabited for about a thousand years. An organised Neolithic Farmer community has become capable of building a massive stone wall around the settlement, strengthened at one point before this date by the addition of massive stone towers (although these may even predate the wall).

Sultanian tools from the Gesher site
Stone tools from the briefly-occupied site of Gesher in the central Jordan valley, approximately one kilometre away from the PPNB site of Munhata, although the Gesher site has sometimes been interpreted (inaccurately according to a 1989 report - see sources) as being part of the long-expired Khiamian

The settlement's size justifies the reference to it as a town, with a suggested population of around two or three thousand. To have achieved such a building and population growth, the inhabitants must be farmers and must also have discovered how to irrigate their basic crops to improve fertility and yield.

c.7500 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 begins to weaken in favour of full PPNB adoption.

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)

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.

c.7400 BC

Neolithic Farmers now enter a phase of fully-domesticated cultivation in the Levant. At this point the Sultanian cultural sub-phase fades out in favour of full Pre-Pottery Neolithic B adoption.

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