Farms to cities: how agriculture led to the birth of towns, cities and trade

Wednesday 11 February 2009 01:00

From about 9000BCE permanent new human settlements began to appear throughout the Middle East.

These "Neolithic" farming people were now able to live in larger communities thanks to an abundance of stored food, gained from a knowledge of farming and the benefits of domesticating animals for their meat, milk and pulling power. Hunting and gathering was for some now becoming a thing of the past.

Jericho is one of the oldest Neolithic towns. It is up to eight times larger than earlier Natufian sites, and is thought to be one of the first to have city walls. Excavations have revealed rounded houses, many with more than one room, and open spaces for domestic activities such as cooking and washing. These early buildings have stone foundations, cobbled floors and walls made of mud-clay bricks. Every site has its own stone or clay silo for storing food and grain, a sure sign that, for these people at least, the days of living on the move were now long gone. Necessity had forced them to adapt nature to their own needs, resulting in a new way of life.

Walls were erected on Jericho's western side – not, as once believed, to defend the city from attack by jealous neighbours, but as a means of protecting it from mud flows and flash floods that frequently swept in from the still rising seas. It was another sign that here the human spirit was newly focused on trying to control and tame nature.

That these people were in touch with other emerging cultures is beyond doubt. Obsidian is a form of natural glass which forms when volcanic lava cools quickly. It was a highly sought after material because it made the sharpest, most effective arrowheads. Obsidian occurs naturally in the rocky hills of central Turkey, but has been found hundreds of miles away in Neolithic Jericho, showing that long-distance trade routes were already well established. Why not exchange glass for precious seeds, already modified to be excellent to eat and easy to harvest, the fruits of more than a thousand years of special selection and hard graft?

It is not difficult to imagine how, once under way in one place, agricultural know-how, seed supplies and domesticated animals quickly diffused throughout Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

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