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date: 28 June 2017

Consequences of Agriculture in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant

Summary and Keywords

The ancient Near East was one of the earliest centers of agriculture in the 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. 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 an essential 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 became 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 paleoenvironmental 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 to consider how resulting environmental change contributed to the success or failure of those polities.

Keywords: agriculture, environmental change, social complexity, sustainability, Near East


The so-called Fertile Crescent of the Near East, stretching from the marshes of the Tigris and Euphrates delta through the Zagros and Taurus foothills to the Levant, is the earliest center of agriculture in the ancient world (Figure 1).

Consequences of Agriculture in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the LevantClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of the Near East, Including Sites and Geographical Features Mentioned in the Text

This region gave 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 (Barker, 2009; Braidwood, 1974; Childe, 1934; Flannery, 1973; MacNeish, 1974; Simmons, 2007; Zeder, 2011, 2015), equally important are the social and environmental consequences of agriculture. The advent of domestication led to a variety of agricultural economies that began to replace hunting and gathering across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Anatolia. The social and environmental context of this transition has profound implications for understanding subsequent economic and political transformations in the ancient Near East.

The initial context for the development of agricultural economies in the Near East involved four significant regional processes that arose in the context of agriculture: changes in environments and social structure, and the rise of urbanism and empires. While scholars have long identified the role of agriculture in the development and expansion of cities and empires in the Near East (Childe, 1934; Wittfogel, 1938, 1957), recent advances in remote sensing (Casana, 2014; Comer & Harrower, 2013) and expansion of regional surveys and excavations in core areas of the Fertile Crescent (Lawrence et al., 2016; Menze & Ur, 2012; Ur et al., 2013; Wilkinson, 2000) have led to new insights into the relationship between agricultural expansion and socioeconomic transformations. Simultaneously, the expansion of systematic collection and analysis of plant and animal remains from sites across the region, especially those dated well after the origins of agriculture, provides a new perspective on relationships between agricultural strategies and environmental transformation on both local and regional scales. The integration of these lines of evidence offers new insights into the variable but profound consequences of agriculture across Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant.

Domestication and the Rise of Agricultural Economies

Varied terminology has been used by archaeologists and other scholars to describe the process by which humans moved from solely exploiting wild species of plants and animals to adopting a subsistence economy predicated upon the availability of cultivated plants and domestic animals. Some scholars have seen the process of domestication as being defined by specific genetic changes among plants and animals that render them unfit to thrive without human attention (e.g., Flannery, 1973); others see it as a suite of related human behaviors and resultant genotypic changes in domesticates (e.g., Fuller et al., 2010); and still others see it as ecological relationships between humans and domesticates (e.g., Rindos, 1984; Terrell et al., 2003). Recent scholarship has focused on viewing domestication as a mutualistic process between species in which the domesticate and the domesticator both adapt in response to the other, rather than a process unique to human control of nature. Such an approach comes from both a niche construction perspective (Smith, 2016; Zeder, 2015, 2016) and that of entanglement theory (Fuller et al., 2010, 2016; van der Veen, 2014), which both emphasize the reciprocal nature of domestication relationships. These modes of thought provide varying degrees of gray area between initial human use of a plant or animal and full, obligate dependence of that species on human propagation, and thus provide varying allowances for states of “resource management” (Asouti & Fuller, 2013), “semi-domestication” (Fuller, 2007; Fuller et al., 2010), or “incidental domestication” (Rindos, 1984), and it is increasingly acknowledged that domestication can be a gradual process playing out over hundreds or thousands of years before fully agricultural populations of domesticates appear (Fuller et al., 2012; Purugganan & Fuller, 2011; Zeder, 2011).

Notably, considerable temporal and economic distance can lie between initial domestication and fully agricultural modes of subsistence. While this fact has been long acknowledged (Harris, 1977, 1989) and is termed variably by different scholars, the concept of “low-level food production” (Smith, 2001) is now seen as a critical conceptual space between the origins of domestication and fully agricultural economies. Most critically, low-level food production is conceptualized as a potentially desirable end state with considerable economic and evolutionary advantages, rather than simply an intermediate state along a unilineal evolutionary pathway to agriculture (Smith, 2001). Archaeologists have identified times and places at which human groups have adopted such strategies in geographic settings worldwide, from the American Northwest (Deur & Turner, 2005) to Japan (Crawford, 2011) and the greater Near East (Holdaway et al., 2010; Kuijt & Finlayson, 2009; Linseele et al., 2016; Vigne et al., 2011; Zeder, 2011). It should be noted, however, that conditions in the Near East appear to have generally favored a transition to fully agricultural societies, although whether due to demographic consequences of the Neolithic Demographic Transition (Bellwood & Oxenham, 2008; Bocquet-Appel, 2011; Bocquet-Appel & Bar-Yosef, 2008), general evolutionary forces (e.g., cultural transmission; Richerson et al., 2001), or local environmental conditions is as yet undetermined.

Evidence for the advent of agricultural economies appears early in the Near East in comparison to other world regions. Large, food-producing villages are one early sign of this economic strategy (Byrd, 2005), as are archaeobotanical assemblages characterized by solely domesticated crops (Miller, 1991; Nesbitt, 2002; Weiss & Zohary, 2011) and faunal evidence for domestication in kill patterns or bone morphology (Zeder, 2006). While early food-producing villages, termed Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA, dated as early as 11,600 cal BP) in the Levant, had been held for decades as core sites documenting the onset of agricultural strategies in the Near East—for example, Jericho (Kenyon, 1981), Abu Hureyra (Moore et al., 2000), and Mureybit (Stordeur et al., 2000)—it is now clear that fully agricultural economies did not coalesce until several millennia later during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB; Barker, 2009; Nesbitt, 2002; Zeder, 2011) and that domestication of both plants and animals arose across the Fertile Crescent during approximately identical time frames (Zeder, 2011). The social changes associated with the rise of villages during the PPNA were complex, including ritual and communal structures—e.g., at Göbekli Tepe (Schmidt, 2000, 2006), as well as many other sites (Byrd, 1994, 2005; Kuijt & Goring-Morris, 2002)—but apparently did not lead directly to, nor result from, a dependence on food production from solely domesticated plants and animals. Instead, fully agricultural economies focused on the cultivation of domesticated plants developed during the PPNB as the result of ongoing economic, social, and environmental changes across the Near East, though regional variation in subsistence practices endured (Barker, 2009; Kuijt, 2000; Kuijt & Goring-Morris, 2002; Zeder, 1999, 2011).

While the timing, location, and causes of the rise of agricultural economies remain debated and subject to revision with new information, the implications of agriculture across the Near East clearly were profound. Changes in social practice, including ritual activity so memorably visible at Çatalhöyük (Hodder, 2010; Hodder & Cessford, 2004), and social structure required close integration of household and community economies. The rise of urban centers, with dense populations and spatial differentiation of specialized labor and architecture (Marcus & Sabloff, 2008; Renfrew, 2008), was predicated on economies of food production that produced reliable surplus and allowed specialization of labor. Similar phenomena on a regional scale enabled the formation of territorial empires. Finally, agricultural practices substantially reshaped the landscape and biodiversity of the Near East, resulting in dramatic environmental change.

Social Structure and Urbanization

The relationship between the initial introduction of plant cultivation and animal husbandry, full-scale agriculture, and social, economic, and demographic changes is complex and remains the subject of sustained archaeological inquiry and vigorous debate. Rather than engaging the literature at length, a brief overview is presented here that follows a simple model: agriculture produced demographic changes that in turn allowed larger settlements and associated changes in social structure that were enabled (or required) by increased population densities. While reality appears to have been far more complex, and the relationships between these variables far more nuanced and interconnected than this crude approximation describes, it does provide a basic framework for a brief review of the literature, to which the reader is directed for more focused inquiry on these topics.

Demographic theory predicts that as populations achieve greater food security and availability, reproduction cycles shorten and fertility rates increase, leading to younger populations and often higher mortality rates following population growth (Bocquet-Appel, 2008; Chamberlain, 2006). This hypothesis has been termed the Neolithic Demographic Transition (alternately, the Agricultural Demographic Transition; Bocquet-Appel, 2011) and has been explored worldwide, although with an initial focus in Europe (Bocquet-Appel, 2002) and only more recent work in the Near East (Bocquet-Appel, 2011; Goring-Morris & Belfer-Cohen, 2008; Guerrero et al., 2008), North America (Bocquet-Appel & Naji, 2006; Kohler et al., 2008), and Mesoamerica (Bandy, 2005; Lesure, 2008; Lesure et al., 2014). Identifying the timing and speed of these demographic transitions has implications for social transformations. One, as argued by some scholars (e.g., Bellwood, 2005, 2009), is the spread of farming populations into areas previously inhabited by hunting and gathering populations and the resultant spread of their language families at the expense of those of hunter-gatherer groups (Bellwood & Oxenham, 2008; Bellwood & Renfrew, 2002).

Another key phenomenon that coincided with the expansion of Neolithic farming populations was the expansion of settlement size, resulting in large agglomerated villages during the late PPNB in the Levant and Anatolia (Asouti, 2006; Kuijt, 2000; Kuijt & Goring-Morris, 2002) and then urban centers during the Late Chalcolithic in Northern Mesopotamia (Lawrence & Wilkinson, 2015; Oates et al., 2007; Ur, 2010; Wilkinson et al., 2014). A suite of social and economic changes accompanied the growth of PPNB villages across the Near East. Expanding systems of intercommunity exchange brought obsidian from its sources in eastern Anatolia to the Levant and seashells from the Mediterranean far inland (Barker, 2009, p. 142). Stone beads were widely traded from their points of manufacture (Wright & Garrard, 2003). These systems of exchange can best be understood as emergent properties of both intracommunity social dynamics and the developing importance of regional political connections among communities (Asouti, 2006). Intracommunity patterns of architecture and use of space for both ritual and everyday activities, including dining, show clear differences between the PPNA and PPNB (Barker, 2009; Byrd, 1994, 2005; Wright, 2000). It has been argued that these architectural changes encode and enact a process of social change through which social networks became restricted, with implications for the development of social complexity and inequality, while also coinciding with increasing suprahousehold decision making (Byrd, 1994, 2005; Kuijt, 2000). Changes in burial patterns coincided with these apparent social changes and served an important role in cementing hereditary ties to place and power (Asouti, 2006; Barker, 2009, pp. 143–144; Byrd, 2005; Kuijt, 1996).

The growth of cities did not directly follow from the continued expansion of PPNB villages, nor the Pottery Neolithic villages that succeeded them. Northern Mesopotamia, the region where the earliest evidence of urban centers in the Near East has been found to date, beginning around 4400 bce, shows evidence for multiple pathways to urbanism and demonstrates that urbanism was a transient phenomenon, with the coalescence and dissolution of cities dependent on a variety of environmental, economic, and political factors (Lawrence et al., 2016; Lawrence & Wilkinson, 2015; Ur, 2010, 2014; Ur et al., 2011; Wilkinson et al., 2014). Similar trends have been identified shortly thereafter in southern Mesopotamia (Algaze, 2001, 2005; Ur, 2010, 2014). A detailed regional study indicates that increases in settlement density and size, especially in northeastern Mesopotamia, coincided with a period of greater rainfall beginning around 5500 bce that may have favored the growth of these settlements in the three and a half millennia that followed (Lawrence et al., 2016, p. 9). The specific mechanism of urban formation, however, remains uncertain. Several modes of growth have been identified among urban centers of Northern Mesopotamia, including expansion of existing regional hubs, agglomeration of existing villages, and immigration of extralocal populations (Lawrence & Wilkinson, 2015).

The social processes behind urbanization, however, remain less well understood, both in the Near East and worldwide (cf. Smith, 2007, 2010; Smith et al., 2014; Smith, 2003). In the case of the Fertile Crescent, one argument suggests that features of landscape that allowed large-scale animal husbandry for textile production favored the ongoing presence of urban centers across northern Mesopotamia, such as Ebla, in contrast to the southern Levant, where the grazing zone was much more restricted (Wilkinson et al., 2014). Another identifies the continuity of discrete neighborhoods in early urban centers, such as Tell Brak, as evidence that social cohesion in urban centers was based on smaller units aggregated spatially into an urban structure and thus represents an evolution of, rather than break from, earlier household-based forms of social interaction (Ur, 2014; Ur et al., 2011). These studies emphasize the diversity of urban forms and formation histories across northern Mesopotamia, although key aspects of similarity among these settlements existed (Lawrence & Wilkinson, 2015; Ur, 2010). The widespread collapse of urban centers at the end of the Early Bronze Age, ca. 2200 bce, has been widely attributed to rapid climatic deterioration that appears to have exhausted the agricultural buffer of large urban centers, leading to their forced dissolution (Staubwasser & Weiss, 2006; Weiss et al., 1993; Wilkinson, 1997; Wilkinson et al., 2007); even this regionally visible process, however, obscures significant local variation in environmental change, agricultural response, and settlement continuity (Marro & Kuzucuoğlu, 2007; Riehl, 2012). Moreover, the apparent impact of this major climatic event demonstrates the fundamental importance of agricultural systems to urban development and persistence, presaging the critical role of agricultural intensification in the rise of empires and in their environmental legacies.


The intersection of imperial political economies, agricultural development, and environmental change is a key topic of contemporary archaeological inquiry in the study of Mesopotamia (Lawrence et al., 2015; Reculeau, 2011; Rosenzweig, 2014, 2016; Wilkinson, 2010; Wilkinson & Rayne, 2010), but has been less developed in study of the Levant (Farahani, 2014b; Ramsay & Eger, 2015; Ramsay & Smith, 2013; Rosen, 2007) and Anatolia (Marston, 2012; Marston & Branting, 2016; Wright et al., 2015). More specifically, however, the question of how agricultural policies enabled the rise of imperial states has been investigated for decades (Liverani, 1979; Wilkinson et al., 2005; Wittfogel, 1957), although the focus of this work on the Assyrian case study is notable. In other cases, studies of empire focus less on their growth and more on the distinct agricultural strategies they employed in provincial settings and on the environmental effects of those practices; the period of Roman control of the Levant and Anatolia is notably well explored (Ashkenazi et al., 2012; Barker, 2002; Marston & Miller, 2014; Ramsay & Smith, 2013; Vermoere et al., 2003; Waelkens et al., 1999; Yakar, 2000). These studies are addressed in the section “Environmental Change”; here the focus is more narrow, on the implications of agriculture for the development of empires.

Assyria provides the most complete example of the union of archaeology, history, and paleoenvironmental reconstruction in understanding the role of agriculture in imperial policy and expansion. Detailed case studies of urban centers, and their relationship with the larger Assyrian state (e.g., Rosenzweig, 2014), complement large-scale survey projects that provide a regional perspective on settlement, land use, and landscape change (Ur, 2005; Wilkinson, 2003, 2010; Wilkinson et al., 2005). Such efforts are expanded by textual studies that elucidate imperial agricultural strategies (Parker, 2001; Reculeau, 2011) and the impacts of climatic events on agricultural production (Neumann & Parpola, 1987).

Together, these data sets indicate that several agricultural strategies were systematically employed by the Assyrian state in order to increase and secure its agricultural production. The “infilling” of the semi-arid landscape of the northern Fertile Crescent, where agriculture is risky without irrigation and where farming was not previously practiced, also served to bolster imperial narratives of settlement and ownership of peripheral, rural landscapes (Rosenzweig, 2016; Wilkinson, 2010; Wilkinson et al., 2005). Imperial construction and control of water distribution networks made possible irrigation on a scale not previously identified in the region, again simultaneously both allowing agricultural intensification and conspicuously displaying the role of the state in making that production possible (Ur, 2005; Wilkinson & Rayne, 2010). Rosenzweig (2016, pp. 54–55) highlighted a number of crops that were enabled by these irrigation systems, including lentils and summer-cropped millet and sesame, while at the same time noting that soil salinization resulting from ongoing irrigation led to an emphasis in barley production over less salt-tolerant cereals, such as wheat (cf. Riehl, 2009).

The ways in which individual communities responded to Assyrian narratives of political legitimacy and agricultural place-making as the empire came to control their region have been less often the focus of study, but are critical in understanding mechanisms of local reinterpretation of, and resistance to, Assyrian imperial narratives and policies. Perhaps the best explored of these few case studies is that of Ziyaret Tepe (ancient Tušhan), where a study of the political ecology of Assyrian expansion into the northern Fertile Crescent draws on rich archaeobotanical evidence integrated with paleoenvironmental records, epigraphic and historical documents, and the broader archaeological and landscape context of agriculture in the region (Rosenzweig, 2014). Rosenzweig concluded that Assyrian narratives of conquest of empty places that were then subject to landscape domestication and transformation to productive agriculture masked prior agricultural histories of newly conquered areas and downplayed the continued, active role of animal husbandry in those regions. Her evidence for differential agricultural practices between administrative and commoner areas of the city indicates that the impacts of Assyrian agricultural policies were experienced differently within segments of society, and furthers identification of economic and subsistence disparities, including differential food security, within Assyrian society, which rendered low-status individuals reliant on imperial food rations and cemented inequality and dependence within urban populations (Fales, 1990; Parpola, 2008; Rosenzweig, 2014, pp. 227–231). Rosenzweig’s study of landscape and power relations illuminates the limits of Assyrian imperial influence on agricultural practices within its provincial boundaries.

A similar study could well be pursued regarding other indigenous empires of Mesopotamia and Anatolia, including the Hittite, Urartian, and Babylonian polities, in addition to those that originated outside the region but came to center their productive economies in Mesopotamia and the Levant, such as those of Iran (Achaemenid and Sasanian dynasties), the Mediterranean (the Hellenistic kingdoms and Roman and Byzantine empires), and the Muslim world (the Arab caliphates and Turkic empires). While notable work has been done on some of these polities, especially those with well-documented historical records of land holding and land use (Farahani, 2014a; Hoffner, 1974; Wilkinson, 2010; Wilkinson & Rayne, 2010), additional attention to imperial agricultural policies at both local and imperial levels is needed. Indeed, as illustrated by the Assyrian example, the marriage of history, archaeology, and paleoenvironmental studies enables a more nuanced understanding of how political economies and ecologies, and landscapes of domination and resistance, varied across time and space within seemingly insular imperial polities.

Environmental Change

Across the Near East, the specialized agricultural economies of cities and empires, as well as of pastoral societies and rural communities that operated at the edge of their spheres of influence, have left dramatic, durable marks on landscapes and ecologies. One way to understand the influence of the markers is through the concept of the legacy effect, which describes the results of past change on the current state of a system (Cuddington, 2011; Holling et al., 2002; Liu et al., 2007; Scheffer & Carpenter, 2003). The concept of the legacy effect arises as part of the theoretical framework termed resilience thinking, derived originally from ecology (Holling, 1973), which explores how change occurs in complex systems and how changes influence the future state of those systems. Resilience thinking is now widely applied to coupled human and natural systems in the present day (Gunderson & Holling, 2002; Holling, 2001; Walker & Salt, 2006), and increasingly also to those of the past (Anderies & Hegmon, 2011; Hegmon et al., 2008; Marston, 2015; Redman, 2005; Redman & Kinzig, 2003; Rosen & Rivera-Collazo, 2012). Anthropogenic environmental change of many types, including deforestation and massive overfishing (Jackson et al., 2001; Lotze et al., 2006), can have transformative impacts on future ecosystems, but agriculture has been perhaps the greatest agent of historical patterns of environmental change across the Near East. Legacies of land clearance, overgrazing, erosion, soil salinization, and species extinction have severe negative consequences for future agricultural sustainability, but other practices, including terracing and water control, may have lasting positive benefits that enhance agricultural production for generations or millennia.

These legacies can be explored within the context of agricultural economies and ecosystems across the Near East from three perspectives. First, by returning to the concept of niche construction (Odling-Smee et al., 2003; Smith, 2014), it is possible to consider how various practices aimed at improving the agricultural and pastoral niches can result in legacies of landscape modification, with both positive and negative future implications. Second, by turning to the environmental implications of specific agricultural strategies, which are conditioned by climatic, ecological, political, and economic opportunities and constraints, it is possible to identify both deliberate and unintentional environmental legacies. Third, intensification of agricultural systems, often aimed at meeting greater demands for agricultural products, may lead to tipping points of environmental stability, with potentially dramatic implications.

Agricultural Niche Construction

Niche construction argues that organisms are capable of modifying environments in order to better suit their preferences, and that such modifications can exert a powerful evolutionary force on both the niche-modifying organism and others in the modified environment (Odling-Smee et al., 2003). The evolutionary pressures exerted by niche construction have been recently argued to be responsible for many of the genetic modifications found in plants and animals during domestication (Smith, 2011, 2015, 2016; Zeder, 2016), but niche construction has had profound implications for human subsistence in solely foraging economies and in fully agricultural landscapes. Landscape modifications that promote collection of wild foods include fish weirs (Erickson, 2006), clam gardens (Deur et al., 2015; Groesbeck et al., 2014; Lepofsky et al., 2015), game kites (Crassard et al., 2015), and the use of fire to modify vegetation communities (Roos et al., 2010, 2014; Sullivan et al., 2015) and to enhance hunting opportunities (Bird et al., 2005; Bliege Bird et al., 2008). In contrast, the role of niche construction in maintaining and enhancing agricultural landscapes has not been extensively considered.

The focus here is on three niche-constructing strategies employed to create new habitats suitable for agricultural production that have been identified archaeologically in the Near East, as well as other settings worldwide: land clearance, terracing, and water control. The term land clearance generally refers to the removal of woody vegetation to create open patches of earth for planting annual crops. This may follow a rotational swidden, or slash-and-burn agricultural strategy, as has been well documented ethnographically in many forested tropical regions, such as the Amazon (Erickson, 2003, 2006) and Mesoamerica (Netting, 1993; Wilk, 1991).

Land Clearance

In the Near East, palynological evidence for deforestation associated with the introduction of agriculture is found, for example, in the northern Levantine Ghab core (Yasuda et al., 2000). In contrast, archaeological wood charcoal data from the southern Levant indicate an expansion of both pistachio and deciduous oak as a result of early sheep herding during the warm/wet early Holocene (Asouti et al., 2015). In most areas, however, few clear markers of landscape clearance exist for early agricultural periods, perhaps because postglacial woodland expansion that continued into the mid-Holocene has obscured its signal (Roberts et al., 2001, pp. 733–734) or perhaps because of the important role of low-level food production and limited niche construction during these periods. Later agricultural systems left more visible and durable legacies.

One of the best known examples of land clearance in the ancient Near East is termed the Beyşehir Occupation Phase (BOP), named after evidence from paleoenvironmental cores taken from Lake Beyşehir in southwestern Turkey (Eastwood et al., 1998; van Zeist et al., 1975). The BOP is characterized by a reduction in the pollen, and thus inferred frequency, of coniferous forest (mainly pine, cedar, and fir) and its replacement by herbaceous plants of disturbed and open ground, including Artemesia, Plantago, grasses, and the family Chenopodiaceae (Dusar et al., 2012; van Zeist & Bottema, 1991). Fire appears to have been an important tool in this landscape clearance (Kaniewski et al., 2007). In addition, an increase in food-producing trees, including walnut, chestnut, olive, and juniper, indicates preferential preservation and/or deliberate cultivation of these valued tree species. The inference is that this widespread land clearance event was the result of expansion of agricultural activities, including crop cultivation, arboriculture, and pastoralism, into previously forested highland regions. The BOP varied temporally by region, but in southwestern Turkey it extended from roughly 1450 bce to as late as 600 ce in some areas (Eastwood et al., 1998). Although the term BOP is variously applied to cases of analogous, but spatially and temporally variable, landscape change in Anatolia (Marsh, 1999), the overall pattern of landscape clearance for agriculture is consistent across much of the Near East. Outside of Anatolia, roughly contemporary events have been identified in highland areas of the Levant (van Zeist & Bottema, 1991) and in Mesopotamia (Miller, 1990; van Zeist & Woldring, 1980; Wilkinson, 1999a), as well as in other areas of the Eastern Mediterranean (e.g., Greece; Dusar et al., 2012).

The legacy effects of land clearance, including the BOP, have been most effectively identified in semi-arid to arid regions of the Near East where woodland growth is constrained by water availability. Unfortunately, many such regions lack primary vegetation records in the form of year-round lakes that can be cored for pollen records, so local impacts of the BOP are hard to identify in these areas. Utilizing pollen records from highland lakes in southwestern and southeastern Anatolia, as well as the northern Levant and northwestern Zagros, however, it has been possible to identify regional records of land clearance legacies. Several areas of highland southern Anatolia show rapid recovery of woodlands following the BOP, ca. 600 ce, which is inferred to correspond with a depopulation of highland regions in the Late Roman period due to political instability and Arab incursions, although climatic change is also thought to have played a large role in population movements and agricultural strategies (Haldon et al., 2014; Vermoere et al., 2000). The regenerated woodlands that follow the BOP, however, were distinct from their predecessors, with more pine, less oak and juniper, and a general absence of cedar (Eastwood et al., 1998; van Zeist & Bottema, 1991, p. 140; Vermoere et al., 2000, p. 590). The woodland shift toward pine is thought to be ecologically determined, a result of soil degradation during the period of human use in the BOP (Eastwood et al., 1998; Roberts, 1990).

Cultivation patterns also changed at the end of the BOP, with little evidence of arboriculture and plant cultivation; instead, seasonal pastoralism is inferred from both environmental proxies and historical records, and it appears to have intensified at lower elevations, perhaps contributing to further removal of oak woodlands from the landscape (Eastwood et al., 1998, p. 79; Haldon et al., 2014; Halstead, 1987). A similar pattern occurred in the northern Levant, where records from Lake Kinneret document deforestation in the second and first millennia bce, intensive olive cultivation until the 6th century ce, and then forest regrowth, but again with a different composition: here, evergreen oaks replaced a significant proportion of deciduous oaks (Baruch, 1986, 1990). In drier areas, however, woodland removal was permanent, with severely diminished tree cover and reduced forest species diversity following initial human land clearance (Miller, 1998; Roberts et al., 2011; Wilkinson, 2003; Willcox, 2002). A rise in the use of ruminant dung as fuel appears to have been an adaptation to the loss of nearby woodland resources along the upper Euphrates (Miller & Marston, 2012), central Anatolia (Miller, 1999), southwestern Iran (Miller, 1985; Miller & Smart, 1984), and the highland Levant (Fall et al., 2015; Klinge & Fall, 2010), and can be considered a legacy effect of land clearance that persists into the present day (Anderson & Ertuğ-Yaras, 1998; Miller & Smart, 1984).


Large-scale manipulation of soil systems for the purpose of enhancing the agricultural niche has been practiced worldwide, including in many regions of the Near East. Terracing, the construction of retaining walls to establish level soils on sloping terrain, is the primary mechanism for soil control across the Near East and most of the world. In some areas, terracing is thought to have been a response to ongoing erosion and an attempt at conservation to retain valuable soils (e.g., in Greece; Butzer, 2005; Forbes & Koster, 1976; Foxhall, 1996, 2007; Price & Nixon, 2005; van Andel et al., 1990), while in other areas, terracing focused on creating new cultivable land where it was otherwise scarce, as has been particularly well studied in the Andes (Erickson, 1992; Langlie & Arkush, 2016; Treacy & Denevan, 1994), Southeast Asia (Acabado, 2017), and Polynesia (Allen, 2004; Kirch, 2006; Ladefoged et al., 2009). The Near Eastern situation is less clear-cut, and apparently involved combinations of strategies for soil conservation, for water management, and for agricultural production on otherwise uncultivable slopes, sometimes with all three strategies applied together.

The interpretation of terraces is often limited by challenges in dating the features and a lack of direct, in situ evidence that identifies their function (Foxhall, 1996; Price & Nixon, 2005). Instead, terraces are often dated and their function inferred based on their relative landscape position, co-occurrence of datable structures, climatic/topographic reconstruction of likely reasons to build the structures, and ethnographic analogy with modern uses of terraces in the region (Treacy & Denevan, 1994). Regional or cross-regional surveys of terracing strategies offer particularly effective insights into their function based on design characteristics (Wilkinson, 2014).

Published studies of agricultural terrace function in the Near East have especially well represented the highland Levant, where evidence indicates that terracing served a combined set of functions for soil conservation and agricultural intensification through cultivable land creation and water retention. One study of Iron Age and Roman Wadi al-Fiedh, Jordan, found that terraces retained soil used in some areas for animal pasture, rather than cultivation, and retained soil that otherwise would be rapidly lost to erosion under sustained cultivation or hillslope grazing (Knabb et al., 2015). Contemporary terraces of the Wadi Faynan had the primary function of water diversion and control, channeling water to dry terraces and allowing extensive cultivation of upper wadi slopes (Barker et al., 1998); similar constructions appear at Petra (Lavento et al., 2007; Ramsay & Bedal, 2015). Other arid regions of the southern Levant, such as the Negev, saw a massive expansion of terraces in the Roman through Early Islamic eras as water-retention features, with the secondary function of soil conservation, allowing agriculture in a hyper-arid region (Ashkenazi et al., 2012; Haiman, 2012). Similar systems employed from much earlier periods in the highlands of southern Arabia allowed agropastoral systems to emerge through rain-fed, extensive cultivation in a landscape otherwise marginal for agriculture (Harrower, 2008b; Wilkinson, 1999b). In addition, these features retained soil, reducing erosion rates significantly (Wilkinson, 2005).

The enduring legacy of agricultural terraces is twofold. On the one hand, well-constructed terraces can last for hundreds or thousands of years and can remain useful with minimal upkeep and reconstruction (Price & Nixon, 2005; van Andel et al., 1986; Wilkinson, 2014). Even when entire terraced areas are abandoned, terraces remains visible markers of human intervention in the landscape, whether arid (Haiman, 2012) or forested (Chase et al., 2011). In these cases, the legacy effect of terracing is a positive improvement of the agricultural niche for future human settlement of an area, allowing for rapid reintensification of agriculture if desired (Guillet, 1987). On the other hand, the cessation of terrace maintenance during social “collapses” can have dramatic environmental effects (including rapid and massive erosion) that render once densely settled areas uninhabitable by permanently reducing the agricultural potential of the landscape (Borejsza et al., 2017; van Andel et al., 1990; Wilkinson, 2014). This negative legacy can be even more profound than the positive niche enhancement of well-maintained terraces, and it represents a significant risk that results from agricultural intensification via soil control in marginal agricultural landscapes.

Water Management

The manipulation of water for agricultural production shares landscape modification techniques with strategies for soil control, and many terracing systems (especially in arid landscapes) serve dual purposes of soil and water control (Ashkenazi et al., 2012; Guillet, 1987; Treacy & Denevan, 1994; Wilkinson, 2006). Characteristic water-management features of the Near East, and Mesopotamia in particular, are canals, ditches, tunnels, wells, and basins designed to move water from wet to dry areas, across either horizontal or vertical space (e.g., from the water table to the surface; Wilkinson, 2003). Such systems of water management became increasingly complex and interconnected during the imperial periods of the last 3,000 years, when efforts focused on both expanding agricultural production into previously uncultivable dry areas and intensifying agriculture in areas where rain-fed cultivation was previously practiced (Miller & Marston, 2012; Wilkinson & Rayne, 2010), in addition to enhancing urban water supplies (Bagg, 2000; Wilkinson et al., 2007). Water control allowed for expansion and improvement of the agricultural niche by minimizing the damaging forces of rapid water flow and managing its productive potential more efficiently over space and time (Smith, 2014; Wilkinson et al., 2015).

Water-management systems in the Near East had distinct forms. Dispersed, extensive systems of diversion channels and check dams that channeled water from wadis, where seasonal rainfall created rapid, erosive water flow, to cultivable plots along wadi slopes or within the wadi channels, were common in the arid highlands of the southern Levant (Ashkenazi et al., 2012; Knabb et al., 2015) and southern Arabia (Harrower, 2008a, 2008b; Wilkinson, 2005). In some cases, the administration of these systems became centralized and monumentalized, resulting in large dams to collect water from multiple drainages and canal systems that fed adjacent lowland areas, with the added risk of system failure should the dams be damaged by flooding or lack of regular maintenance (Wilkinson, 2003, p. 195).

Open canals, drawing on dammed or free-flowing waters, and typically cut into alluvial soils but in some cases carved through bedrock, were a staple of cultivated landscapes across the Near East, but are best represented in Mesopotamia, where they are known to have existed from at least 5000 bce (Wilkinson, 2003; Wilkinson et al., 2012). Mesopotamian canals played a role in bringing water to urban populations, as well as agricultural fields, and are believed to have originated with an expansion and replication of naturally occurring alluvial fans in Sumeria. Such canals began as short irrigation ditches under local control but presaged the later development of massive imperial canal systems hundreds of kilometers in length (Ur, 2005; Wilkinson, 2003; Wilkinson et al., 2015). The irrigation systems of the Sasanian Empire, in particular, are well known for their extent and complexity and their role in marshaling water resources for both urban and rural agricultural functions (Adams, 1962, 1965; Wilkinson, 2003, p. 93).

The qanat, an underground water channel tunneled through bedrock with periodic well-like access shafts cut vertically above, allowed the movement of highland aquifer water to arid lowlands, in some cases dozens of kilometers away (Lightfoot, 1996; Wilkinson, 2003, pp. 155–158). While this technology has been long held to be an Urartian innovation of the first millennium bce that was spread widely by the Persian Empire, recent finds challenge this interpretation and point to earlier instances of this technology in southern Iran, Pakistan, and southeastern Arabia (Lightfoot, 2000; Magee, 2005; Wilkinson et al., 2012). A distinct advantage of such constructions is that they provide continuous flows of water and thereby broaden the opportunities for water sharing in lowland cultivation. Additionally, the maintenance requirements of qanats were generally low enough that qanats could be used for centuries after their construction, with minimal central planning (Lightfoot, 2000). Qanats enable many oasis settlements in southern Arabia today, although their utility in northern Mesopotamia has declined since the advent of mechanized pumping of groundwater, which lowers the water table (Lightfoot, 1996).

Aqueducts, generally defined as raised water channels that allow gravity flow of water across low-lying areas, but also used to refer specifically to urban water-supply channels (aboveground or cut channels) in the Roman world, are common in the later Near East. Although examples of masonry-constructed raised channels, such as the famous Jerwan aqueduct of Sennacherib near Nineveh, date to the Neo-Assyrian period of the early first millennium bce, aqueduct construction expanded greatly during the Hellenistic period and especially the Roman period (Amit et al., 2002; Hodge, 2002; Jacobsen & Lloyd, 1935; Kamash, 2012; Ur, 2005). Although best known from Mesopotamia and the Levant, aqueduct systems were also utilized throughout Roman Anatolia for urban water supply (Hodge, 2002; Ortloff & Crouch, 2001; Waelkens et al., 1999).

The net effect of these distinct water-management tools was that farmers in many areas of the Near East were able to expand the agricultural niche into areas initially inhospitable for cultivation, and to intensify agricultural production when circumstances demanded. The intensification of agriculture at various times and places within Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Anatolia was driven by a host of environmental, demographic, political, and economic forces, and led to differing environmental legacies. Clear linkages between the growth of territorial empires, especially those of Mesopotamia, and well-developed, centralized administration of water-management systems indicate the importance to expanding imperial powers of both control over agricultural production and managing the challenge of agricultural intensification in an arid landscape. While few scholars continue to argue that water-management systems were the genesis of social complexity in the Near East (Wittfogel, 1957), continued attention to the intersection of water, intensification, and empire indicates the enduring importance of the connections (Wilkinson, 2010; Wilkinson & Rayne, 2010).

Agricultural Strategies

Agricultural populations face many choices in deciding how to produce food: they can choose plant cultivation, animal husbandry, or both; they can choose among crop and animal varieties, and mix and match species; they can utilize specific niche-constructing landscape-management practices, or not; and they can adjust the spatial and temporal extent of different agricultural practices to maximize efficiency, food, and secondary products, or to minimize risk. These choices, here termed agricultural strategies, have direct environmental implications. How they are chosen, however, remains a complex question subject to ongoing study by archaeologists (Halstead & O’Shea, 1989; Marcus & Stanish, 2006; Marston, 2011; Morrison, 1994) and anthropologists (Cashdan, 1990; Winterhalder, 2007). Such studies agree, however, that agricultural decision making occurs within the context of ecological, political, social, and economic opportunities and constraints. Identifying these decision-making processes in the past can be challenging, but identifying archaeological evidence for specific agricultural strategies and their environmental outcomes is more easily accomplished, given access to robust archaeological and paleoenvironmental records (Marston, 2017).

Several distinct agricultural strategies that have been identified archaeologically across the Near East had both intentional and unintentional consequences, which formed legacy effects for subsequent land users. Standard botanical (Marston et al., 2014; Pearsall, 2015) and faunal (Reitz & Wing, 2008) analysis methods permit identification of the suite of plants and animals chosen. How crops were combined is more complex, but can be assessed through mixed crop seed assemblages (Jones & Halstead, 1995) and weeds of cultivation that indicate farming practices (Jones et al., 1999, 2010; Riehl, 2014). Animal husbandry practices are inferred from the age and sex structure of slaughtered animals (Arbuckle, 2012a, 2012b; Payne, 1973; Zeder, 1991). Increasing applications of stable isotope analysis to seeds of agricultural production found at archaeological sites have given new insights into practices of cropland fertilization (via nitrogen isotopes; Bogaard et al., 2007; Fiorentino et al., 2012, 2015; Vaiglova et al., 2014) and irrigation (via carbon isotopes; Fiorentino et al., 2012, 2015; Flohr et al., 2011; Masi et al., 2014; Riehl, 2008; Riehl et al., 2014). Manuring of fields for fertilization has also been approximated using sherd counts from off-site surveys (Given, 2004; Wilkinson, 1982, 1989) and irrigation has been inferred via weed floras (Jones et al., 2010; Miller & Marston, 2012; Riehl, 2014) and durable remnants of water-control features (Harrower, 2008a; Wilkinson, 2003, 2006). Measures of risk minimization include evidence for the deliberate planting of drought-tolerant crops (Marston, 2012; Riehl, 2014), food storage (Kuijt, 2015), and diversification between crop and animal species (Arbuckle, 2012a; Marston, 2011).

The outcomes of these practices often leave positive legacy effects for future farmers. Fertilization, crop rotation, and multicropping can maintain and even enhance soil fertility. Through these methods and landscape terracing, soils can be conserved and even “cultivated” to provide increased future agricultural yields, as has been observed archaeologically worldwide (Glaser et al., 2003; Kron, 2000; Redman, 1999; Wilkinson, 2014). A mixed agropastoral production strategy creates mutual benefits between herders and farmers: mobile herds can graze on field stubble and deposit fertilizing dung in fields; animals can be fed with fodder crops (such as alfalfa and clover) that also fix nitrogen to improve soil fertility, grown as part of a crop rotation or during fallow years; animal dung is an alternative to wood as a fuel source, helping to preserve woodlands and their ecosystem services; and crop food waste can be fed to urban animals (especially pigs) to further boost food reliability and agricultural efficiency. Increases in biodiversity through the maintenance of mosaic systems of woodland and grassland, not to mention diverse crops grown in multicropping agricultural systems, can maintain a diversity of niches for local animals, plants, insects, and microbes (Bliege Bird et al., 2008; Duelli, 1997; Roy Chowdhury, 2007; Sullivan et al., 2015). Water-control features may remain in use for generations, providing reliable increases in crop production with little ongoing labor required (Harrower, 2008a; Kirch, 2006; Redman et al., 2009; Stone & Downum, 1999). Negative legacy effects, however, can also arise from these practices. Soil salinization has been identified as a common result of large-scale irrigation that can render large regions unusable for agriculture, even with salt-tolerant crops like barley (Altaweel & Watanabe, 2012; Artzy & Hillel, 1988; Redman, 1999; Redman & Kinzig, 2003; Wilkinson, 2003). The extent to which salinization characterizes ancient Sumerian agriculture, however, is still debated (Altaweel, 2013; Powell, 1985). Desertification is a result of some intensive land-use strategies, especially in arid regions where intensive agriculture was combined with widespread deforestation (e.g., the southern Levant; Barker, 2002; Barker et al., 2007). The conditions under which agricultural strategies lead to sustainable or unsustainable legacies remain under investigation, with diachronic (Marston, 2015; Marston & Miller, 2014) and regional (Barker, 2002) comparative studies providing new insights into these processes.

Intensification and Tipping Points

It has long been identified that intensification in the production of food and secondary products within agropastoral systems is a common outcome of increased demand, whether due to population growth or nucleation, increased taxation or tribute requirements, or economic networks that permit surplus to be converted into durable wealth (Boserup, 1965, 1981; Morrison, 1994). Such intensive systems may be sustainable over long periods of time with little environmental impact, as seen in pondfield taro farming in Polynesia (Kirch, 2006) and with irrigation canals of the American Southwest (Redman et al., 2009). In some cases, however, intensive agricultural practices cross thresholds, or tipping points, of environmental stability, leading to dramatic and often rapid breakdowns of ecosystem services and often the agricultural system itself. Such “collapses” of the agricultural system have been a topic of investigation for archaeologists for some time (Butzer, 1982; Butzer & Endfield, 2012; McAnany & Yoffee, 2010; Middleton, 2012; Tainter, 2006). Identifying where tipping points arise, the processes by which they are reached (or not), and their consequences, however, is best addressed within the framework of resilience thinking, which identifies processes of rapid reorganization as intrinsic to coupled human and natural systems. Threshold events, as tipping points are described in the resilience literature, can then be studied in comparative perspective across time and place to identify common processes within agricultural systems that lead to collapse (Barnosky et al., 2012; Gunderson & Holling, 2002; Scheffer, 2009; Scheffer & Carpenter, 2003; Walker & Meyers, 2004).

The relationship between intensification and collapse has been identified in many environmental narratives about the past, although few have approached this topic from a resilience perspective. Several high-profile debates about clearly identified tipping points, including the deforestation of Easter Island (Diamond, 2005; Hunt, 2007; Hunt & Lipo, 2010; Mieth & Bork, 2010) and the “collapse” of the Maya urban centers (Diamond, 2005; Dunning et al., 2012; McAnany & Negrón, 2010), have coalesced around environmental narratives of overintensification and even obsessive misuse of resources (e.g., the “mania for moai” on Easter Island; Hunt, 2007). Similar dialogues in the Near East have focused often on large-scale state societies of Mesopotamia and the possible effects of both climatic change and long-term soil salinization on agricultural productivity in the Mesopotamian plain (Powell, 1985; Redman & Kinzig, 2003; Yoffee, 2010). The problem with this holistic regional approach to tipping points is that, while identifying the tipping point itself and its ramifications may be straightforward, identifying the underlying processes leading to that tipping point that operate at multiple scales, from individual agricultural decision making to super-regional economic and political networks, becomes a challenge. More successful have been case studies that intensively investigate a restricted region, such as a particular watershed or hinterland of an urban center, to clarify and contextualize cross-scalar interactions between the local and the regional. Such studies help us to identify how and why, rather than just where and when, threshold events occurred in the past, permitting a deeper understanding of archaeological case studies and enabling more productive discourses on contemporary environmental change.

Two well-defined case studies are described here, one from central Anatolia that adopted a resilience perspective and one from the northern Levant that did not. The contrast between the two studies highlights not only regional and cultural specifics but also cross-cultural and super-regional generalities that help to elucidate processes that relate agricultural intensification and environmental tipping points within the semi-arid landscapes of the Near East. In the case of Anatolia, prior work at the site of Gordion, a major urban center of the Anatolian Plateau inhabited at least from the Early Bronze Age through the Roman era and the capital of the Phrygian kingdom during the Iron Age, has shed considerable light on farming (Marston, 2017; Miller, 2010), herding (Miller et al., 2009; Zeder & Arter, 1994), settlement dynamics (Kealhofer, 2005; Voigt, 2002), and environmental change (Marsh, 2005; Marsh & Kealhofer, 2014; Miller, 1999) across its occupation history. Synthesizing these results from a resilience perspective (Marston, 2015), it was possible to identify intensification in land use during the Middle Phrygian period, when Gordion was a large city and an important economic node in the Phrygian kingdom. Increases in irrigation, lentil production, cattle husbandry, foddering of herd animals, and land clearance of open steppe woodlands all indicate that both the intensity of agropastoral production and its spatial extent increased substantially, likely to feed the increasing population of the city (Marston, 2015, 2017). Simultaneously, evidence for overgrazing and the onset of large-scale alluviation of the Sakarya River, which flows by the site, suggests that local pasture lands were overused and that grazing (and likely land clearance) shifted to areas upstream within the Sakarya watershed. The tipping point of environmental stability identified here is conditioned on landscape stability, a factor of soil exposure and vegetation cover. While vegetation responses to grazing are relatively fast, woodland regrowth is slow and soil development slower still. The speed with which agricultural practices and land clearance intensified during this period pushed soil stability past a threshold from which it could not recover. Ongoing upstream erosion and resultant alluviation of the Sakarya continued until the 20th century, a legacy of Iron Age (and subsequent) land use practices (Marsh, 1999; Marston, 2015).

Geomorphological research on the timing, extent, and effects of soil erosion is a powerful tool for understanding the legacies of human land use in the semi-arid and arid landscapes of the Near East. Such research, when deeply integrated with landscape studies of human settlement patterns and archaeological (and, when possible, historical) research into the dynamics of human land use, allows reconstruction of the processes by which soil instability arises and identification of tipping points of environmental stability, such as that described for Gordion. Casana (2008) positioned his study of erosion in river valleys of the northern Levant above the ancient cities of Alalakh and Antioch in the context of ongoing debates regarding apportioning causation for widespread erosion in Mediterranean landscapes to either climate or human activity (c.f. Bintliff, 2002; Butzer, 2005). Integrating geomorphological study of valley fills, regional archaeological survey, geospatial analysis, historical evidence of land-use practices, paleoclimatic reconstruction, and historical rainfall modeling, Casana concluded that significant differences between Bronze Age and Roman land-use practices resulted in distinct environmental impacts and soil erosion legacies. During the Bronze Age, conversion of woodland to farm and pasture lands had negligible impacts on soil stability in the area, and subsequent Iron Age agriculture also did not lead to widespread erosion, in contrast to other regions (such as Gordion, described above). A Roman-period shift to mixed cultivation of olive, grapes, and cereals triggered large-scale erosion that accelerated after 150 ce, lagging the introduction of this agricultural strategy. Casana argued that small-scale climatic events, such as short-lived increases in storm activity, had a subsequently large effect on erosion rates given ongoing soil instability (Casana, 2008, p. 438).

Although Casana did not position this research in a resilience framework, it is possible to tease out the critical tipping point of soil instability as resulting from a particular strategy of intensive agriculture. The lag between the introduction of this strategy and its environmental impact is a result of resilience within the soil system, one that was sufficient to retain soil stability during earlier periods of agriculture but that was exceeded by ongoing intensive Roman land use. A striking parallel exists here with Gordion, where Roman land use was particularly intensive and had profound environmental implications across the region (Marston & Miller, 2014), an ultimate consequence perhaps of economic incentives resulting from Roman taxation policies in the eastern provinces (Marston, 2012). Casana reviewed the extensive literature on late Roman soil erosion across the Mediterranean and identified widespread evidence that Roman agricultural practices in the Levant involved an expansion into uplands and desert margins, previously unoccupied areas with lower thresholds of soil stability. The subsequent collapse of farming and settlement in these marginal zones may well be a direct result of the environmental legacies of earlier Roman practices (Casana, 2008, p. 439). An unexpected legacy effect of upland erosion was lowland alluviation, which buried some Roman cities in meters of sediment, silted in harbors, and covered fertile agricultural plains with shallow lakes and marshland, which can be seen in coastal regions of the Near East from the Levant to western Anatolia (e.g., at Miletus; Knipping et al., 2008).

This contrast of two case studies highlights the value of exploring threshold events from the consistent theoretical framework of resilience thinking, which provides concepts that describe and connect analogous cases of landscape change while highlighting the underlying environmental and social processes that lead to rapid and dramatic change. Unifying this perspective with that of niche construction helps to elucidate reciprocal elements of human–environmental interaction that form the environmental consequences of agriculture.


The introduction of agriculture led to profound demographic, social, political, economic, and environmental changes across Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. The advent of village societies and cities was tied intimately to patterns of cultivation and agricultural intensification. Imperial expansion, especially within Mesopotamia, was predicated upon control of agricultural production and invoked elaborate narratives of landscape control and domestication to reinforce the ideological power of the state. A detailed exploration of the environmental consequences of agriculture shows considerable spatial and temporal variation with regard to the scale of impact of specific agricultural strategies. Some local-scale land-use strategies resulted in immediate and dramatic environmental change, whether deleterious (e.g., erosion) or positive (e.g., irrigation and soil retention via terracing). Other strategies of low-impact land use left few archaeological or paleoenvironmental traces. In some areas, temporal shifts in land-use practices resulted in dramatically different environmental impacts, as seen in the case studies detailed here.

The archaeological turn toward histories of settlement patterning and environmental change that began in the 1960s (Adams, 1965; Braidwood, 1974) has enabled the ongoing recovery of rich environmental data sets from Near Eastern sites that document the primary products of agricultural systems within their contemporary social and economic contexts. Efforts to synthesize these data sets across time and space, combined with regional data sets from archaeological survey, remote sensing, and climate modeling (Lawrence et al., 2016), provide new insights into the social and environmental implications of agricultural systems. Increasingly, archaeologists are able to understand agricultural change within its contemporary social and environmental settings, enhancing communication with scholars of the modern Middle East and those who explore agricultural sustainability worldwide, and providing a greater voice for archaeologists and environmental historians within important contemporary realms of public discourse (Kintigh et al., 2014a, 2014b; van der Leeuw & Redman, 2002).


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