First settlements

© Bob Denton, 2016
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Around 20,000 BP the Ice Age was at its coldest and this reduced the availability of wild game as vegetation became sparse.  Our ancestors therefore needed to innovate, they began to trap small game and became inventive with cereal grains and nuts by grinding them to provide useful non-perishable foodstuffs.

They became aware of and tracked the seasonal changes in these ‘crops’ growth patterns. Initially these notions did little to stop their nomadic lifestyle because even small groups soon exhausted local wild supplies and thus moved on.

Around 16,000 BP the world heated up, though oscillated somewhat for the next six millennia forcing our ancestors to become foragers and hunters. It was when these early peoples moved out of the forests and onto the savannahs that things started to change. They shed body hair and that led to physiological changes in body heat and hydration.

Scientists don’t agree as to why this change may have occurred, certainly other predators in equatorial regions remained hairy. But this did reduce the need for water, because hair had increased the evaporation of water through sweating. However the disadvantage was becoming cold at night which led to a need to fabricate clothing for warmth.

Rain water is such an unreliable irregular source that it was rivers and lakes that became the vital resources for our ancestors and they settled beside them.

From 15,000 BP there are traces, in the Eastern Mediterranean area (today’s Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey), of the very earliest settlements. Dating to 13,400 BP are the first signs of the Natufian culture, which prospered and survived in that region for some three millennia, until the return of a cold period, the ‘Younger Dryas’ or ‘Big Freeze’. 

Natufian hunter-gatherers

The Natufians are odd in that they did not develop agriculture and yet led a settled life. Agriculture proved unnecessary because they were located in a pleasant climate that contained a plentiful supply of wild cereals and they had large herds of gazelle to hunt. Finds of bone fishhooks and harpoons show that they also fished in rivers and the sea.

BRIEFER: Natufian derives from the location of the earliest research into them, this was undertaken at Wadi an-Natuf located in the Judaean mountains.

They lived in the forests and used wood not bricks to build. This left traces of post holes indicating they built three to six metre diameter wooden round houses, of course the surmised posts and brushwood roofing have not survived. A find from 14,000 BP, at a Natufian settlement in Israel, discovered human and puppy remains buried together suggesting they may already have domesticated dogs.

By 12,000 BP the total world human population is said to have been around ten million, that’s less than two-hundredths of one percentage point of today’s population. This small population had free range, with so much space to occupy and so many natural resources.

The globe’s land masses were essentially as they are today. In Europe the English Channel had yet to be gouged out by flood water from the North Sea, and other coastal differences existed, but essentially what you see today is what you got back then. However, it was not to be in Europe where civilization first began to flourish.

First agriculture

Early humans settled In Aswad close to today’s Damascus, Syria. At its oasis of Damas it has been established that a barley grew wild in the marshland around the local water source and this appears to have been what led to settlement and experimentation in agriculture. From as early as 14,500 BP humans began planting and harvesting grains for themselves.

When the grain matured it needed to be gleaned and ground within a few weeks or the crop was lost. One theory suggests that as grinding crops led to the hassle of carrying around large stones for doing this, that it was merely to avoid this that they changed their nature from nomadic hunter-gatherers into settled farmers.

Following periods of trial and error to establish the most promising crops, around 11,500 BP these settlers were able to subsist from their crops. Some sources suggest this would have been assisted by a coincident change in climate coming to their aid.

African cattle herders

At around this time, in Southwest Asia they began to herd goats and sheep for their milk and meat, and in Africa they began to herd cattle for the same benefits. By 10,000 BP animal husbandry had become a regular part of the human skill set, broadening diets and increasing stability. Once you tended animals in this way it further reinforced the need to be near plentiful water, or at least to store water, as the animals would also require access to it routinely and regularly, yet another motivation to settle.

Settlements meant static homes. However, some groups still preferred their nomadic ways and viewed these settlements as places to plunder, which led to a need for security to deflect marauding nomads.

First walled community

The world was getting warmer by around 9,000 BCE (Before Common Era) and human settlements began to be established around the Middle East. There is no fossil evidence that Neanderthals lived south or west of Israel, so these were Homo sapiens settlements.

The founders of these early communities were what archaeologists call PPNA (Pre-Pottery Neolithic A) communities, simply meaning they had yet to discover techniques for fabricating pottery. Their settlements were possible because of the fruits of their first steps into agriculture within the fertile areas of the Middle East river valleys.

They were thus among the first humans to encounter the defecation dilemma, if you stayed put in one place then your community’s ordure would rapidly accumulate around your home. They were also one of the first, and far from the last, communities to assume that if you dumped your excrement in the river that was jobbie done, but humanity would later learn that we all live downstream from someone!

The River Jordan valley was significant in the development of human agriculture and civilization. Tell-es-Sultan was one of these very early human communities dating to 9,400 BCE. Its inhabitants have been designated as PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) communities dating from 12,500 – 9,500 BCE, the Mesolithic 2 age (aka the Middle Stone Age 2).

Tell-es-Sultan ruins, 2 kms from Jericho
Image source:

Tell-es-Sultan makes the claim, as yet unchallenged, to be the oldest city in the world (see the better-known claimant, the city of Ur later). It initially consisted of some seventy round houses built from unbaked clay/straw bricks. It is more popularly called Jericho.

Located thirty kilometres east of today’s Jerusalem it was an oasis at the heart of 500 square kilometres of uninhabitable Judean Desert. They cultivated cereals because Jericho sits on the west bank of the Jordan providing a plentiful supply of water for agriculture.

It is surmised that the stability and strength of Jericho was further enriched by trading in salt from the nearby Dead Sea. Salt was invaluable for ancient peoples, not just for preserving foods, but to augment the food of their livestock and also to sustain themselves at the cellular level. Salt also featured in medicines, in the process of curing leathers and even mummification. It is suggested that salt might be considered the petrochemical of its time.

BRIEFER – much later, the ‘salarium argentum’ was the term for part payment of Roman soldiers wages by a supply of salt – and has modern echoes in the word ‘salary’ and the term ‘worth his salt’.

Clay head from Jericho
Image source:

Unhygienically the early inhabitants of Jericho practiced the ritual burial of its dead directly beneath their own houses. Stranger still, while they were not yet making pottery from clay, they did use clay to fabricate full-size heads and figurines of people. Intriguingly the Babylonian legend of Gilgamesh and the Biblical Adam-and-Eve creation-legends, both from this locale, are based upon the first people being fabricated from clay.

Wild barley in the Jordan Valley
Image source:

Jericho’s success attracted undesirables, outcasts and outlaws who gathered in the nearby desert. So Jericho needed to protect its community wealth against those less keen on grafting at agriculture and more inclined to steal the results of others’ efforts. The town built a strong wall around itself from as early as 3,100 BCE. It was destroyed and rebuilt seventeen times across the next millennium and might have been rebuilt again given the Biblical tale of Joshua, estimated to have made it tumble in 1,400 BCE.

Floods in Jericho

Attackers were not the only threat. Jericho, with its then 2,500 population, would have been among the first communities that encountered a need to ‘live’ with its adjacent river’s moods. This meant they needed to construct anti-flood measures, create means for water storage tanks to see them through the summer and periods of drought – remember this all had to be done without pottery. They also had to establish processes to irrigate their crops – and of course establish what to do with all that human and animal waste.

These same issues were being encountered in the many communities that emerged within what is termed as the ‘Fertile Crescent’ stretching from Egypt to Iran, located along the Nile, Jordan, Euphrates, Tigris…

Earliest indoor latrine?

Briefly stepping away from the Middle East, it is the Orkney Islands that provides us with the earliest extant latrine. The islands are well versed in withstanding harsh weather and tremendous storms, but would not have been high up many peoples’ list to provide us with any civilising breakthroughs. 

Skara Brae – containing earliest latrine?
Source: historic

A particularly violent storm in 1850 stripped the sand and grass from a mound on the north-west coast of Orkney’s mainland. The local laird undertook some excavations and unearthed four buildings in a mound originally called Skerrabra, or Skara Brae, it was initially assumed to be an early Pict village from around 500 BCE.

Excavation had stopped by 1868, but another storm in 1925 damaged some of the excavations and a protective sea-wall needed to be erected. The work to do this found more dry-stone buildings and further excavation was undertaken from 1928-1930 to reveal eight dwellings linked by a low covered and paved passageway; they were thought to be low to minimise the impact of a winter in Orkney or may have been defensive. Being sunk in to the ground they certainly offered protection against sea and storms.

But it was in the 1970s that radiocarbon dating established that it was in fact a late Neolithic site dating between 3,180 and 2,500 BCE, this earlier date puts it within the top twenty of the oldest extant structures in the world, clearly pre-dating Stonehenge and Giza’s pyramids. It proved to be the best-preserved group of Stone Age houses in western Europe.

It is believed to have had three distinct phases of building and been in constant use for five hundred years with a maximum population between fifty and one hundred. Now called Skara Brae it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site #514 in 1999.

The buildings had been well-protected beneath a sand dune, the walls still standing, the alley roof’s slabs still in place and the interiors and domestic ‘furniture’ undamaged. They were built upon a rubbish pile known as a ‘midden’, a term also used by Scots for a cesspit. The midden in this case gave the homes their insulation in this bleak location.

Skara Brae dwelling

The houses are circular with any trace of roofing long gone, which are assumed to have been straw, turf, skins or even whalebone; wood other than drift-wood is scarce here. Each has a central hearth, a large block seat and a distinctive stone ‘dresser’ with shelves and a securable stone front door. Beds were built in to the walls, with heather laid on stone as a ‘mattress’ and animal skins for blankets.

Skara Brae Latrine Source:

One surprise was its drainage system, which was rather sophisticated for its age. Running beneath each house it is presumed to have served as a primitive toilet, from a latrine built within the corner of each house. Clearly, given the environment, you would not have wanted to need to go outdoors for your ablutions. Quite where these advanced civilised dwellings and the notions that created them came from remains unclear.

© Bob Denton, 2016
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