Preview of this post. In the last post, we saw 800 miles of Tigris-Euphrates Valley sink below the waves as the global sea level rose 400 feet from glacial melt-water since the Last Glacial Maximum. We now call this submerged river bed the Persian Gulf. Those who moved upstream kept fond primal memories of life in the valley they left behind, which could never be found again, and which they called Dilmun and largely remembered as a paradise. We know about Dilmun from oral Sumerian folktales which were written down in cuneiform a couple thousand years later. Forced to abandon prior homes by the encroaching sea, the valley occupants had four choices: (1) move north into Iran, (2) south up the banks of the new sea to form (the new) Dilmun, (3) by boat to Meluhha (the Sumerian name for the Indus Valley civilization), or (4) upstream into Southern Mesopotamia to form proto-Sumer, which I would identify with the Ubaid. These who came from Dilmun into Southern Mesopotamia in the 7th millennium B.C. were not yet recognizable as Sumerians of the 4th millennium B.C. Rather, these immigrants formed the Ubaid culture, competed with the Halaf Culture of northern Mesopotamia, with Indo-Iranians in Susiana, and others for 2,500 years, and eventually absorbed most of them. The beginning of this long-term acculturation process is the subject of today’s post.
Neolithic Age. Progress through the Neolithic is measured by artifactual criteria. The order and dates in which these defining criteria were fulfilled varied widely by location around the world. We have found isolated tribes in the past century which were and remain still stuck in the pre-Neolithic. The earliest and most thorough progress through these criteria has been recorded by archaeologists in the Fertile Crescent. As with all science, such “proof” is only temporary, until new evidence disproves the previous theory. There is no “settled science,” by definition.
Yarmukian Culture 6400-6000 BC. Excavation dating shows Jericho apparently led the way with Yarmukian pottery, thus positing the Levant as first in the introduction of ceramic pottery (Remember that no science is settled. The next dig elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent could uncover a calibrated older pottery fragment). From there, the pottery revolution spread so rapidly into northern Mesopotamia that we could be accused of quibbling about a mere 400 year difference in C14 dating, which is customarily presented at one standard deviation and thus makes the difference statistically insignificant at a range of 8000 years.
The Dry Farming Line in the Fertile Crescent. Source.
Dry Farming. Farming developed in two directions in Mesopotamia: that which was done with adequate rainfall early in the Agricultural Revolution, and that which was later developed on a large scale using artificial irrigation from the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. The line of the “southern limit of dry farming” runs right through the Levant and Mesopotamia in the above map. Rainfall north of the line was adequate to farm without irrigation. Rainfall south of the line was insufficient, thus driving urbanization to assemble the huge manpower needed to dig and maintain canals to distribute the substantial river water to the immensely fertile alluvial plain.
Early Halaf, Hassuna, and Samarra Cultures. Source.
Hassuna and Samarra Cultures 6000-5500 BC. These first farmers irrigated with rain north of the dry farming line. Both of these northern Mesopotamian cultures are identified primarily by specific styles of pottery. Hassuna pottery is represented by the first three items in the top row of the this link (you can check the rest of the items, but you must click each and assure its provenance).Hassuna ware is believed to be the earliest Neolithic pottery. You can easily see that Samarra pottery in this link has a finer fabric and is decorated more artistically than Hassuna (most of the first rows are Samarran but be sure to check the provenance of each).
Halaf Culture 6100-5100 BC. The Hassuna and Samarra cultures were absorbed by the Halaf culture, which farmed north of the dry farming line to their west. The development from Pre-pottery Neolithic to Pottery Neolithic and then Chalcolithic was pioneered here in the Fertile Crescent, ranging across the Levant and Mesopotamia, within the larger Halaf Culture (colored areas below) and the Yarmukian Culture along the Jordan Valley, west of the dry farming line. Halaf ceramics, especially those of Arpachiyah were the most elegant and beautiful I have encountered in any of the cultures of that era and for the next couple of millennia in Mesopotamia. Something magical happened at Arpachiyah, but subsequent Ubaid and Sumerian “progress” in Mesopotamia snuffed it out. I dream of a colony of artists living in tholoi (see Arpachiyah site map) who took Halaf ceramics to their maximum potential, then evacuated to a more hospitable environment–perhaps Harappa–until the Indo-Iranians arrived. I chronicled their ceramics in my novels as antiques treasured by the elites centuries later.
Halaf Culture Absorbs Hassuna and Samarra Cultures. The History Files.
Ubaid Culture 6500-3800 BC. In the prior post, we studied the origin of the Ubaid people who migrated upriver from the 800-mile-long submerged stretch of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, now called the Persian Gulf. These people had been living within that river valley as sea level rose from glacial melt-water after the Last Glacial Maximum. This Ubaid migrated upriver, not changing their riverine lifestyle any faster than they had to.
By 6500 BC, those displaced upriver would have arrived in what we’re calling Southern Mesopotamia in large numbers. These immigrants from the erstwhile 800 mile-long riverine culture would have gradually concentrated in the dry but shortened fertile plain between the prosperous Halaf farmers north of the dry farming line and the delta facing the recently formed Persian Gulf.
It is not a stretch to perceive that the higher population density and compelling need to produce lots of food from the dry yet fertile savannah led to the invention of irrigation canals. It would have started on a small scale among the more sociable immigrant farmers–probably a large tribe. Once their success was seen, the assembly of other groups would rapidly follow until virtually everyone in Southern Mesopotamia had congregated into burgeoning towns. One can imagine something like the frontier towns in the western USA two centuries ago.
Their productivity would have far exceeded that of individual farming, and such success would have produced wealth beyond their wildest imaginations. The homes would become larger and more comfortable. A revolutionary new class of entrepreneurial craftsmen would begin forming, the earliest making immense fortunes. It doesn’t take a genius to imagine that such success would feed upon itself. The first cities would appear huge to their residents. Elites would form. Many would grow fat from the unprecedented abundance of food. Ambitions would grow boundless. Envy would arise and spread.
Then they would look upriver at those previously envied farmers with the pretty pottery.
This is a good point to conclude this post.
In the next post, we’ll resume here as a confrontation of some sort looms between these uber-rich proto-Ubaid “modern” farmers and those hard-scrabble Halaf farmers upriver who live closest to the dry farming line and are surviving at the whim of their rain gods.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke