Ancient grain reveals the development of the earliest cities

09 November 20172 min reading

How were the first cities established and how did they develop? The analysis of 8,000 years old grain from ancient Mesopotamia has some answers.

8bin500yillk_tahilAncient grain from the Middle East has given scientists an insight into how some of the world’s first cities developed. Small, charred remains of grain that are at least 8,500 years old provide a fingerprint of ancient farming in ancient Mesopotamia-a historical area in present-day Syria and Iraq.

In the Khabur Valley in Northeast Syria, archaeologists have found several ancient cities. One of them is Tell Brak, which was described by British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan in the 1930s.

ATOMIC PHYSICS MEETS ARCHAEOLOGY Amazingly enough, packets of information have survived 8,000 years in the form of grain from burned down houses. “It’s a bit mean, but when a house burns down, we archaeologists are really happy because then grains are burnt and don’t rot. They can lie in the earth for thousands of years,” says archaeobotanist Mette Marie Hald from the National Museum of Denmark, who participated in the study. The scientists measured isotopes in 276 samples of grain discovered in Tell Brak and four other ancient cities in the northern region of Mesopotamia, dating to between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago. The study is published in the scientific journal, Nature Plants.

FARMERS MADE THEIR OWN CHOICES ABOUT THEIR GRAIN The grains held clues of the socio-economic system of the time, revealing who held power in these early cities. “It’s interesting that we find large pots filled with different crops in private homes, and from the isotope values we can see that they had very different manuring levels, so they must have come from different fields,” says Hald. In other words, the grain suggests that there was no centralized arable economy, but that each farmer made their own choices.

If a king or nobleman controlled the fields, then all of the harvest would probably be collected centrally and then distributed. In this case, archaeologists might expect to see more consistent isotope values in the grain found in various households. “So and it doesn’t look like there was a strong centralized power at this time,” says Hald.

In later deposits, the archaeologists found remains of temples, large storerooms, and administrative buildings, which suggest a central power had developed from the early agribusiness. So it appears that the development began with a collective of important farmers.

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