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Mesopotamia

The International History Project

Date: 2003

Mesopotamia is a region, not a country.

The emergence of Mesopotamian civilization

The Late Neolithic Period and the Chalcolithic Period. Between about 10,000 BC and the genesis of large permanent settlements, the following stages of development are distinguishable, some of which run parallel: (1) the change to sedentary life, or the transition from continual or seasonal change of abode, characteristic of hunter-gatherers and the earliest cattle breeders, to life in one place over a period of several years or even permanently, (2) the transition from experimental plant cultivation to the deliberate and calculated farming of grains and leguminous plants, (3) the erection of houses and the associated "settlement" of the gods in temples, (4) the burial of the dead in cemeteries, (5) the invention of clay vessels, made at first by hand, then turned on the wheel and fired to ever greater degrees of hardness, at the same time receiving almost invariably decoration of incised designs or painted patterns, (6) the development of specialized crafts and the distribution of labor, and (7) metal production (the first use of metal--copper--marks the transition from the Late Neolithic to the Chalcolithic Period).

These stages of development can only rarely be dated on the basis of a sequence of levels at one site alone. Instead, an important role is played by the comparison of different sites, starting with the assumption that what is simpler and technically less accomplished is older. In addition to this type of dating, which can be only relative, the radiocarbon, or carbon-14, method has proved to be an increasingly valuable tool since the 1950s. By this method the known rate of decay of the radioactive carbon isotope (carbon-14) in wood, horn, plant fiber, and bone allows the time that has elapsed since the "death" of the material under examination to be calculated. Although a plus/minus discrepancy of up to 200 years has to be allowed for, this is not such a great disadvantage in the case of material 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Even when skepticism is necessary because of the use of an inadequate sample, carbon-14 dates are still very welcome as confirmation of dates arrived at by other means. Moreover, radiocarbon ages can be converted to more precise dates through comparisons with data obtained by dendrochronology, a method of absolute age determination based on the analysis of the annual rings of trees.

The first agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the transition to sedentary life took place in regions in which animals that were easily domesticated, such as sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, and the wild prototypes of grains and leguminous plants, such as wheat, barley, bitter vetch, pea, and lentil, were present. Such centers of dispersion may have been the valleys and grassy border regions of the mountains of Iran, Iraq, Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine, but they also could have been, say, the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush. As settled life, which caused a drop in infant mortality, led to the increase of the population, settlement spread out from these centers into the plains--although it must be remembered that this process, described as the Neolithic Revolution, in fact took thousands of years.

Representative of the first settlements on the borders of Mesopotamia are the adjacent sites of Zawi Chemi Shanidar and Shanidar itself, which lie northwest of Rawanduz. They date from the transition from the 10th to the 9th millennium BC and are classified as pre-pottery. The finds included querns (primitive mills) for grinding grain (whether wild or cultivated is not known), the remains of huts about 13 feet in diameter, and a cemetery with grave goods. The presence of copper beads is evidence of acquaintance with metal, though not necessarily with the technique of working it into tools, and the presence of obsidian (volcanic glass) is indicative of the acquisition of nonindigenous raw materials by means of trade. The bones found testify that sheep were already domesticated at Zawi Chemi Shanidar.

At Karim Shahir, a site that cannot be accurately tied chronologically to Shanidar, clear proof was obtained both of the knowledge of grain cultivation, in the form of sickle blades showing sheen from use, and of the baking of clay, in the form of lightly fired clay figurines. Still in the hilly borders of Mesopotamia, a sequence of about 3,000 years can be followed at the site of Qal'at Jarmo, east of Kirkuk, some 150 miles north of Baghdad. The beginning of this settlement can be dated to about 6750 BC; excavations uncovered 12 archaeological levels of a regular village, consisting of about 20 to 25 houses built of packed clay, sometimes with stone foundations, and divided into several rooms. The finds included types of wheat (emmer and einkorn) and two-row barley, the bones of domesticated goats, sheep, and pigs, and obsidian tools, stone vessels, and, in the upper third of the levels, clay vessels with rough painted decorations, providing the first certain evidence for the manufacture of pottery. Jarmo must be roughly contemporary with the sites of Jericho (13 miles east of Jerusalem) and of Çatalhüyük in Anatolia (central Turkey). Those sites, with their walled settlements, seem to have achieved a much higher level of civilization, but too much weight must not be placed on the comparison because no other sites in and around Mesopotamia confirm the picture deduced from Jarmo alone. Views on the earliest Neolithic in Iraq have undergone radical revisions in the light of discoveries made since the 1970s at Qermez Dere, Nemrik, and Maghzaliyah.

About 1,000 years later are two villages that are the earliest so far discovered in the plain of Mesopotamia: Hassuna, near Mosul, and Tall Sawwan, near Samarra'. At Hassuna the pottery is more advanced, with incised and painted designs, but the decoration is still unsophisticated. One of the buildings found may be a shrine, judging from its unusual ground plan. Apart from emmer there occurs, as the result of mutation, six-row barley, which was later to become the chief grain crop of southern Mesopotamia. In the case of Tall Sawwan, it is significant that the settlement lay south of the boundary of rainfall agriculture; thus it must have been dependent on some form of artificial irrigation, even if this was no more than the drawing of water from the Tigris. This, therefore, gives a date after which the settlement of parts of southern Mesopotamia would have been feasible.

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