Climate Change and the Beginning of Food Production in southwest Asia – University of Copenhagen

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08 January 2015

Climate Change and the Beginning of Food Production in southwest Asia


Tobias Richter tells about his research-project focused on the relationship between climatic and cultural change and whether deteriorating environmental conditions at the end of the last Ice Age caused humans to cultivate wild plants for the first time

The rise of agriculture in Asia

Agriculture began to emerge in western Asia c. 10,000 years ago. It remains the earliest attested appearance of agriculture anywhere in the world. Some of our most basic, daily food staples – e.g. wheat, barley, peas, and lentils – as well as many of our farm animals, such as cattle, pigs and sheep, spread from southwest Asia into Europe between 7,000 – 4,000 BCE. Although this process was once described as the 'Neolithic Revolution', we now know that it actually took thousands of years to go from the first tentative steps in plant cultivation to the appearance of larger villages that were completely dependent on domesticated plants and livestock. 

The consequences of this economic shift for human societies were fundamental: unprecedented population growth, deforestation and overexploitation of agricultural land, emergence of social hierarchies, and appearance of the first organised religions and the advent of commutable diseases can all be traced back to the switch from hunting and gathering to farming. Some climate scientists have even traced back the origins of humanly induced global warming to an increase in greenhouse gasses caused by the establishment of large rice paddies in eastern Asia 8,000 years ago. Although we understand the consequences the emergence of food production quite well, archaeologists continue to debate the causes of why this critical change occurred in the first place.

Climate and prosperity of civilisation

Near Eastern Archaeology students from the University of Copenhagen carefully exposing a deposit of animal bones at Shubayqa 1

My current research at the University of Copenhagen, as part of a Danish Council for Independent Research Sapere Aude Forskningsleder research grant, explores one of the key models that has been put forward to explain the appearance of agriculture in southwest Asia. This hypothesis suggests that an abrupt climatic downturn, the Younger Dryas event, forced hunter-gatherer groups in southwest Asia to adopt cultivation to alleviate food shortages. Initially, hunter-gatherer groups were able to establish larger, more permanent settlements during the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, c. 15,000 years ago. During this warm phase vegetation and animal populations had expanded providing a wide range of food resources. Circa 13,000 years ago the Younger Dryas set in. The Younger Dryas was an abrupt climatic downturn during which temperatures fell by about 5°C and ice sheets on the northern hemisphere expanded. This drop in temperature is said to have forced hunter-gatherers in southwest Asia to adapt to these new environmental circumstances. They responded by both reverting to a more mobile lifestyle, as well as beginning to experiment with plant cultivation.

While this model has been influential in our thinking about the origins of agriculture, some scholars have voiced doubt about the accuracy of the available data. By looking at a number of late Epipalaeolithic and early Neolithic sites (dated 12,800 – 9,000 BCE) situated around the Qa' Shubyaqa in the Black Desert of northeastern Jordan, we aim to provide add new evidence to gain a better understanding of what the impact of the Younger Dryas was in the local area and how final Pleistocene groups may have reacted it. Since 2012 we have carried out three seasons of excavation at two sites in the Qa' Shubayqa, and have surveyed the surrounding landscape for other sites. In addition to the two sites we have been excavating at, we have so far locate an additional seven late Pleistocene and early Holocene sites. Our work has therefore already demonstrated that there was a remarkable settlement density during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene in the Qa' Shubayqa area.

Remarkable findings in Shubayga

14,500 year old hut structure excavated at Shubayqa 1

Our excavations at Shubayqa 1, a late Epipalaeolithic Natufian settlemen has produced evidence for two oval hut structures, as well as large amounts of stone and bone tools, animal bones, and plant remains. The latter are particularly important, because plant remains are usually only poorly preserved in archaeological sites of this date in this region. Through extensive sampling of the soil from our excavations we have been able to recover hundreds of charred plant remains of cereal grains, tubers and other plants. Once these have been analysed they will provide a rare insight into the past vegetation in the local area, as well as what plants were collected as food. The huts found at Shubayqa 1 have been dated by radiocarbon to be 14,500 years old, making them some of the world's oldest stone-built architecture found. Great care was taken in their construction, with flat stones having been laid down as a pavement on the inside and a large fireplace was installed in the centre. Shubayqa 1 is one of the most remarkable and important late Epipalaeolithic Natufian sites found in recent years, and shows that northeastern Jordan was an important settlement region at the time.

In August 2014 we also began excavations at another site nearby, called Shubayqa 6. Stone tools collected from the surface suggested that this site may date to the earliest phase of plant cultivators, the Pre-Pottery Neolithic dated to c. 10,200 – 9,000 BCE, but we will have to confirm this in due course by radiocarbon dating. Our recent test excavations at the site produced evidence for a substantial settlement. Traces of architecture, a rich collection of plant remains, as well as large numbers of stone tools and faunal remains were also found. Small stone drills and production waste strongly suggest that stone beads were made en masse at the site. The numerous greenstone fragments and bead pre-forms we have found show that this was likely a workshop area. One of the most exciting finds was a small chalk figurine. The plant remains recovered so far from Shubayqa 6 are once again incredibly interesting and important, and will provide us with a detailed insight into plant procurement, use and consumption in this early farming community.

An importen piece in the puzzle

Our work in north-eastern Jordan will continue for several years to come. We have now collected a wide range of evidence showing that, despite its often assumed marginal environmental position at the edge of the steppe to the desert, the Qa' Shubayqa was an important settlement region during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene. Here, we may in fact be able to document the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in unprecedented detail and provide new insights into the emergence of agriculture in southwest Asia and the reasons why humans embarked on this fundamental switch 10,000 years ago. Further research will allow us to closely correlate changes in the environment with cultural, technological, economic and social changes to hopefully better understand what may have led people to abandon their hunting and gathering lifestyle in favour of settling down, cultivating plants and raising livestock.

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The Shubayqa Archaeological Project is funded by a Danish Council for Independent Research Sapere Aude Forskningsleder grant and is based at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the Faculty of Humanities. Additional financial support was received from the Danish Institute in Damascus, the H.P. Hjerl Minefondet for Dansk Palæstinaforskning and the Council for British Research in the Levant. We are grateful to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan for permission to carry out fieldwork in the Qa' Shubayqa and the people of Safawi for hosting our team.

Some of the artefacts recovered from Shubayqa 1