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date: 27 April 2017

Agriculture in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The Near East is one of the earliest centers of agriculture in the ancient world, giving rise to domesticated herd animals, cereals, and legumes that today have become primary agricultural staples worldwide. Although much attention has been paid to the origins of agriculture, identifying when, where, and how plants and animals were domesticated, equally important are the social and environmental consequences of agriculture. Shortly after the advent of domestication, agricultural economies quickly replaced hunting and gathering across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Anatolia. Exploring the social and environmental context of this transition has profound implications for understanding the rise of social complexity and incipient urbanism in the Near East.

Economic transformation accompanied the expansion of agriculture throughout small-scale societies of the Near East. These farmsteads and villages, as well as mobile pastoral groups, formed the backbone of agricultural production, which enabled tradable surpluses necessary for more expansive, community-scale economic networks. The role of such economies in the development of social complexity remains debated, but they did play a necessary role in the rise of urbanism. Cities depended on agricultural specialists, including farmers and herders, to feed urban populations and to enable craft and ritual specializations that become manifest in the first cities of southern Mesopotamia. The environmental implications of these agricultural systems in the Mesopotamian lowlands, especially soil salinization, were equally substantial. The environmental implications of Mesopotamian agriculture are distinct from those accompanying the spread of agriculture to the Levant and Anatolia, where deforestation, erosion, and loss of biodiversity can be identified as the hallmarks of agricultural expansion.

Agriculture is intimately connected with the rise of territorial empires across the Near East. Such empires often controlled agricultural production closely, for both economic and strategic ends, but the methods by which they encouraged the production of specific agricultural products and the adoption of particular agricultural strategies, especially irrigation, varied considerably between empires. By combining written records, archaeological data from surveys and excavation, and paleo-environmental reconstruction, together with the study of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites occupied during multiple imperial periods, it is possible to reconstruct the environmental consequences of imperial agricultural systems across the Near East. Divergent environmental histories across space and time allow us to assess the sustainability of the agricultural policies of each empire and consider how resulting environmental change contributed to the success or failure of those polities.