Climate change and the origins of agriculture and complex societies

[First posted May 2010,  Revised 04 November 2011]
 Re-posting an earlier blog on climate change and agriculture, to be followed with a blog on the same topic, but with a focus on the Garamantian kingdom and other groups of  North Africa and the Sahara.
  In line with current debates regarding causes and results of climate change, I have been thinking about the impact of climate change on agricultural practices and social formations in the ancient Near East.
King Scorpion, detail from his mace head, Oxfo...

Scorpion King, Predynastic or Dynasty 0. Egypt. Wikipedia

votive Figure of a Sumerian, perhaps awaiting offerings of bread and beer. The Louvre

In the mid- Holocene ( 7-6,000 BP ) gradual diminution of seasonal rains in North Africa and the Middle East (and elsewhere) coincided with the beginnings of systematic canal-building for crop production and to maintain livestock.As regions along the Nile Valley and the Tigris-Euphrates became increasingly arid due to lack of seasonal rains, the construction of canals adjacent to these permanent water sources became a basic requirement for continued agriculture.

This was particularly the case for the production of grain.The organization of labor for canal work and associated cultivation and grain processing and storage required coordinated labor, which in turn – together with the creation of increasing surpluses of grains – provided a basic framework for the development of city-states and central government, itself linked with increasing social stratification, occupational specialization and elite formation, together with different foods and culinary practices associated with different social/economic groups.

This is a vast generalization/simplification of the several 1000s of years during which these changes took place, as many of the hunter-gather populations transitioned to pastoral and sedentary lifestyles.As the process of sedintarization took place in the Fertile Crescent, legends developed in Egypt and in Mesopotamia that attributed the introduction or fine performance of canal work and grain-based agriculture to (mythical) founding-kings, or to gods and goddesses. In Egypt, for example, the predynastic [or possibly dynasty 0.

In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, it was the gods and goddesses who were said to have introduced canals and grain cultivation. This is described in the following segment of the Royal Chronicle of Lagash:

A section of the Royal Chronicle of Lagash. Source: Ashmolian Museum, Oxford

… at that time the human race, in its carefree infancy, had a hundred years. Coming into an advanced age, it had another hundred years. But without the ability to carry out the required work [cultivation of grain], its numbers decreased, decreased greatly. In the sheepfolds, its sheep and goats died out.

At this time, water was short in Lagash, there was famine in Girsu. Canals were not dug, vast lands were not irrigated by a shaduf, abundant water was not used to dampen meadows and fields, because humanity counted on rainwater. Ašnan did not bring forth dappled barley, no furrow was plowed nor bore fruit! … No country or people made libations of beer or wine, […] No one used the plow to work the vast lands. …

In order to dig the canals, in order to dredge the irrigation ditches, in order to irrigate the vast lands by a shaduf, in order to utilize abundant water so that the meadows and fields were moistened, An and Enlil (gods and goddesses) put a spade, a hoe, a basket, a plow – the life of the land – at the disposal of the people.

After this time, human beings gave all their attention to making the barley grow. … Day and night, whenever necessary, they were attentive. They bowed down before Ashnan who produces barley seed and began to work …

…. Written in the Academy. Praise to Nisaba.

In the following map, the city-state of Lagash is located in the orange section, near the Persian Gulf.

Lagash is located in the orange section, towards the Persian Gulf

Will contemporary climate change – whether it is resulting from our own or Nature’s permutations – result in such drastic changes in social organization, lifestyle, technology, agriculture, and food? I tend to think so, in a guarded way. In this sense, the concepts of ‘sustainable; sustainability’ – that have recently become so popular – may have little meaning in the long run. Perhaps we’ll all be returning to some form of hunting-gathering in the future..

. —— Holocene climate change in the northern Sahara was associated with similar processes of sedentarization and domestication of crops and livestock, which have only been recently documented through archaeological work, and which I will take up in a future blog.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Agriculture, Climate Change, Egypt-Ancient, History-Ancient, Middle East, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Climate change and the origins of agriculture and complex societies

  1. Pingback: Climate change and the origins of agriculture and complex … | Egypt today

  2. Pingback: Vegetable Gardening For Beginners – 6 Easy Tips To Start You Off

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s