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Prehistoric Developments of the Ancient Near East

Updated: Jun 19, 2021


The Neolithic Period began around 9000 B.C. which established important cultural developments. The most important of these was the advent of agriculture. This allowed societies to reside together in year-round settlements. Before this, mankind had lived by gathering food from local resources, and moving when these were exhausted. Thus, civilization moved from the hunter-gatherer to the agriculturalist. To be noted however, these changes were not overnight, and the agriculturalist still hunted wild animals and gathered selected resources when available.

Wild cereals have weak stems that allow their seeds to easily disperse and fall to the ground before they can be harvested. They also have strong husks that protect the seed from premature germination. These early people developed these wild grains into the bread wheats we have today through selection and cross-breeding with wild grasses, but again, this took time. Sheep and goats became domesticated around this time as well.

The house is the best distinguished attribute of sedentary life in the archaeological record. In the Levant, houses were built of stone or with stone foundations; elsewhere in the Near East, their walls were of piled mud, and later of mudbrick. These settlements became increasingly large, and a shift from round to rectangular houses took place in the ninth millennium.

By 7000 B.C., agricultural villages existed throughout the Near East in areas with sufficient rainfall for farming. Shortly after 7000 B.C., these villages could be found in areas relying on irrigation. Unlike the Nile River in Egypt, which provides water in the late summer just when it is needed for planting crops, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers rise in the late Spring, when almost full grown plants can be damaged by too much water. As a result, a system of canals and storage basins had to be developed to control the water and allow it to enter the fields only when needed.

All of these cultures were only small communities without any organization beyond the village level. Their wide geographical spread and long-distance contacts is amazing to consider. Another characteristic is their longevity. The Halaf culture lasted almost a millennium and was gradually replaced by the Ubaid culture, which continued for almost another two millennia. These factors indicate that once settled, these communities retained a stable and local development. They preserved the same material culture throughout their existence, only gradually becoming more extensive and complex.

The prehistoric cultures discussed here demonstrate that cultural aspects of later Near Eastern history developed over long periods of time. A culmination of these processes occurred in the fourth millennium, when several innovations led to the establishment of the Sumerian civilization.


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