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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Know Your Prehistory (5) --
Further Considerations of the early Neolithic Period.
by Joy Saynor.

This fifth article in the series will attempt to examine the archaeological evidence for the early Neolithic plant and animal husbandry of south-west Asia in the 2,000 or so years between the end of the sixth and of the fourth millennia BC, and also to consider the factors which led to the emergence of the first historic civilisation of Mesopotamia -- the Sumerian -- towards the latter part of the period.

In the context of the domestication and exploitation of plants and animals, it is relevant to consider the archaeological evidence. Cereal grains and seeds, the palaeoethnobotanical material (i.e. evidence from the earliest strains of plants), have been found at first, and for the greater part, as carbonised material. This has occurred either as a result of an accidental fire, or because of the slight roasting of wheat or barley in a parching oven to facilitate later threshing. Whole spikelets of wheat and barley have been found as well as carbonised grains and seeds, and the stem fragments of wheat. Secondly, impressions in the mud-daub of contemporary dwellings of these early seeds have been identified, (at Jarmo) the result of using straw and chaff as a strengthening agent with the mud. Thirdly, and more rarely, microscopic examination of this daub and of coarse pottery sherds has revealed small silica skeletons from the outer cell walls of grass seeds (again from Jarmo); wheat and barley cells have been identified in this way.

The archaeological evidence for the domestication of animals on a site should ideally indicate, firstly, the bones of both wild and domesticated animals-hunting did not automatically stop when domestication began.

Secondly, and of most importance, the remains of extremity bones might show a progressive decrease in size, indicating the transition between the wild and the domesticated animal, mainly to be seen in cattle bones in Europe. Thirdly, it might be expected that the greater part of these bones would be of mature animals slaughtered while their young were in the process of capture, with a majority of superfluous male remains, and that fourthly and lastly, that pictorial representations of the capture of animals might survive. As to the second point the consideration of changes in bone structure after domestication, no true evaluation can, as yet, be made until a comparable study of wild animal bones is undertaken. Furthermore, it is considered that wild animals also changed rapidly in size in post-glacial times. It is to be understood that the early Neolithic husbandry of south-west Asia was based on sheep and goats, (70 per cent), unlike the cattle and pigs which were the first animals to be domesticated in south-west Europe.

Agriculture and livestock then as today, sought a plentiful supply of water, which was not readily available in Iran and in the hill-zones of Syria and northern Iraq. Thus it was that the flowering of Neolithic culture took place firstly in the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and the Euphrates, to be followed in those lands watered by the Nile, and after a considerable time-lag, in the Indus region to, the East. But it was from the and highlands of south-west and southern Iran that the founders of the first historic civilisation -- the Sumerian -- came, at the end of the fifth millennia BC, to settle in an area equivalent in size to modern Denmark. Evidence that this whole region from the eastern Mediterranean to the Tigris formed a single cultural zone would seem to be indicated by pottery with similar painted multi-chevron or incised herringbone designs common to many widely-spaced settlements.

The earliest culture of the Sumerians, the Urbaid, took its name from the Al Urbaid site, a mound of river silt above the marshland at the lower end of the Euphrates valley not far from Ur itself. As a result of such soil fertility that the sowing of one field of barley could produce an 86 times yield the Urbaid culture spread, in a few centuries over all Mesopotamia and much of Syria. The Urbraid folk lived not only in the simple village type of settlement, as exemplified by Al Urbaid itself, with house walls of mud-plastered reed mats, but also in towns with buildings of sun-baked brick, and frequently reconstructed temples. In the sequence of fourth millennia temples at Warka in southern Mesopotamia, monumental sculpture and pictographic inscriptions abound: inscriptions depicting wheeled vehicles and boats with curved prows and sterns. The use, to some degree, of imported copper for axes and knives, in the northern Urbaid culture has led some prehistorians to term this stage the Chalcolithic, thus introducing some confusion into this essentially Neolithic culture. Copper was simply more economical in a land of alluvial mud, lacking stone or flints than imported less durable flint. Many peasant crops were, however, harvested with reaping knives set with flint teeth. Early Urbaid pottery akin to the buff-ware types of southern Iran, was handsome, sometimes with foot-rings shaped on a hand-turned wheel, but by the Warka stage. it was being produced on a free-spinning wheel, made by professional potters rather than by the women of the household.

Thus by the fourth millennia,Neolithic culture had evolved a society with gradations of wealth, division of labour, urban and rural societies, and a spiritual attitude to life of some complexity.


  1. The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, ed. by P J Ucko and G W Dimbleby, (1969).
  2. Science in Archaeology -- E S Higgs and D R Brothwell, (1963).
  3. Animals in Archaeology -- Antiquity 39, (1945).
  4. World Prehistory -- an Outline, Grahame Clark (1961).
  5. The Prehistory of European Society -- Gordon Childe (1958).
Other articles in this series.
Winter 1971 #26 8 Iron Age Progressions
Summer 1971 #24 7 Bronze Age Beginnings
Winter 1970 #22 6 Bronze Age Beginnings
Autumn 1970 #21 5 The Neolithic Period
Spring 1970 #19 4 The Neolithic Revolution
Winter 1970 #18 3 Mesolithic Progress
Autumn 1969 #17 2 The Emergence of Homo Sapiens
Summer 1969 #16 1 The Dawn of Man
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