"The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed" Stephen Bourke (Part 2)

The next chapter of this book covers the vast swathes of prehistory in the Middle East, taking us from the first migrations of pre-homo sapiens humans out of Africa all the way through to about 6000 years ago just before the first cities of Mesopotamia. Which is rather a lot of ground to cover! So much so that I have split the chapter into two blog posts, the first of which covers the Paleolithic cultures and the second will cover the Neolithic.

The Fertile Crescent

This is not just the story of the Middle East over this period, but also the story of humanity as we go from early humans to modern humans, and from nomadic hunter-gatherer to farmers living in permanent settlements. The introductory 2 page spread for this chapter suggests that one reason everything seems to happen first in the Middle East is due to geography. It's on a crossroads between Africa, Europe and Asia, so it was the best informed region - all knowledge flowed through there as it spread. And then could be combined with the other new ideas from other areas to produce leaps in technology.

Paleolithic Era

Early humans (Homo erectus) begin to spread outside Africa within a few hundred thousand years of their evolution. The earliest traces of humans date to 2.6 million years ago (in Ethiopia) and the earliest non-African evidence is from Dmanisi in Southern Georgia dating to 1.8 million years ago. These hominids presumably migrated via the Levantine corridor, as the only land route between the two areas. The next oldest site where human tools (and three teeth) have been found is in the Jordan Valley. Judging by the tools found at a wide variety of sites across the Middle East there were three or four different waves of migration out of Africa by Homo erectus. One of these migration waves also provides evidence of the first controlled use of fire - which I think I should've known pre-dated modern humans, but if I did know I had forgotten.

The Middle Paleolithic era lasted from around 250,000 to 45,000 years ago, and it was during this period that Homo erectus was replaced by Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. The dominant theory 40 years ago (based on archaeological evidence from Europe) was that first came the Neanderthals and they were then replaced by our own species before 40,000 years ago. Excavations in the Levant have changed this picture significantly. There are Homo sapiens sapiens remains as old as 100,000 years ago at site in the Levant, and Homo sapiens neanderthalensisas young as 50,000 years ago. There have also been skeletons found that display different combinations of characteristics from the two groups. What's more the tools produced in the various different sorts of sites show no significant difference between the sites in terms of material culture and way of life. So perhaps the two species co-existed (for around 50,000 years or so). The double page spread about this era ends with a set of questions we don't know the answers to yet - including whether or not the Neanderthals were actually a separate species.

The boundary between the Middle Paleolithic and the Upper Paleolithic (c.45,000-50,000 years ago) is marked by changes in tool technology. The shift was from tools formed as flakes or points to elongated blades which have a better edge-to-mass ratio and can be more efficiently produced. Interestingly as well as a local development of this tool culture (or perhaps brought by newcomers from Africa) there is also evidence of migration* into the area from Europe. The tools these immigrants brought with them are also blade based, but not the same as the ones produced in the Levant. These migrants are relatively restricted to one geographical region and one time period (32,000 to 30,000 years ago). An oddity of the Levantine Upper Paleolithic culture is that there is no evidence of art: no cave paintings, no figurines, no engravings. If I remember right the same is also true of Chinese prehistory ... is art another of those ideas that is thought of only rarely and then spreads to become universal? Although having said that, we are very limited in what we can find evidence of - music, singing, dancing, drama and so on aren't necessarily going to leave traces in the archaeological record.

*I'm not quite sure from the book why they know (if they know) that it's the tool users that migrated rather than just the technology moving.

The next period of Middle Eastern prehistory is referred to as the Natufian period, and once again it's characterised by a particular sort of tool. They give a technical description in the book, but basically the main form is small crescent-moon shaped tools for hunting and food preparation. The Natufian period falls into two phases: early from ~15,000-13,000 years ago and late from 13,000-11,500 years ago. This culture shows the first signs of sedentarism - with permanent, year-round villages. The communities still seem to have been hunter-gatherers, which was interesting as I previously thought the general idea was that settlement and agriculture happened the other way round. During the second phases of this period there's actually more mobility in the communities, but they seem to have more clearly defined territories even if they're not sedentary. I'm not actually sure what the evidence for this is, they don't mention it in the book. However the authors do say that the second phase lines up with a signicantly drier period and so perhaps there wasn't sufficient food at any given site to support a permanent population. Agriculture may or may not have begun during this period (experts are divided) but taming and domestication of the dog were definitely begun by the Natufians.

In contrast to the earlier Levantine cultures the Natufians are art producers. They produced both standalone things (like decorated bowls and slabs as well as figurines) and personal accessories (like necklaces, belts, etc). And the beginnings of trade are visible - for instance artifacts made of Anatolian obsidian have been found in the core Natufian region (the Levant from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan Valley). Natufian sites also have evidence of the first large scale cemetaries. There isn't really a pattern to how bodies were treated. Generally the body was buried in a flexed position, sometimes in a single occupant grave, sometimes in a larger grave. Some bodies have decoration and/or ornaments, some graves have carefully place stones, others are just a pit refilled after burial. The book doesn't speculate at all about potential elite/non-elite distinctions - perhaps it's clearly random when you look at the data?