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Feeding the first cities: Isotopic evidence for agricultural extensification in ancient Mesopotamia

last modified Jun 06, 2017 03:53 PM
New study sheds light on the agricultural economy that underpinned the emergence of the first urban centres in northern Mesopotamia.
Feeding the first cities: Isotopic evidence for agricultural extensification in ancient Mesopotamia

The location of the archaeological sites Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Zeidan, Tell Brak, Hamoukar and Tell Leilan included in this study. Annual rainfall data are derived from interpolation of average monthly climate data for 1960–1990. Credit: Nature Plants

A study published in Nature Plants sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria.

The international team of researchers used stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of charred ancient grains from Tell Sabi Abyad, Tell Zeidan, Hamoukar, Tell Brak and Tell Leilan (6500–2000 cal BC) to reconstruct the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time.

They found that as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plough more resources—such as manure—into existing, more intensively managed fields.

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plough animals, both of which could be monopolised by powerful families and institutions.

The findings of this research therefore reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

Project leader Prof Amy Bogaard from the University of Oxford, said: ‘Each cereal grain found buried in an archaeological site holds within it a record of the environmental conditions under which it was grown.

‘Studying many samples of grain from a number of ancient sites allows us to build up a picture of how farming changed with the waxing and waning of early cities, and in particular how people coped with the need to feed growing urban populations.

‘We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming. As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: for example, with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed. Examining how prehistoric farmers coped with changing conditions could yield some useful advice for modern day governments facing similar pressures of growing populations and changing environments.’

Dr Augusta McMahon, co-author from the University of Cambridge and director of excavations at Tell Brak added, 'This study is crucial to understanding the diversity and dynamics of urban growth in northern Mesopotamia during this period. Tell Brak is at the centre of it all, as one of the world's earliest cities. Flexibility in farming practices and political engagement in the agricultural economy were integral to cities' development and sustainability.'


The full paper, ‘Isotope evidence for agricultural extensification reveals how the world’s first cities were fed,’ can be read in the journal Nature Plants. doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.76

Adapted from a press release from the University of Oxford.

Excavations at Tell Brak, 2009 Image credit: Augusta McMahon






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