7000 BP

What fascinates me is the timescales of the spread of farming. Human beings are very good at copying practices that make life better. And they are very good at spreading around the world. So why did it take 5000 years from the first signs of farming in the fertile crescent, before farming practices started to spread into Europe around 7000 BP?

Farming is harder work than hunting and gathering, taking more hours per day. But it can produce a more secure food supply and it can produce food more intensively, from a smaller area.

The two factors to be considered in thinking about this are the nature of the fauna and flora humans lived off and the climate which determines the abundance of food and what kind of animals and plants existed in an area. We should not assume that the fertile crescent and the areas around it were then as they are now. In times past the Middle East was a lot more verdant than now, with the whole of North Africa being considered the ‘bread basket’ in Roman times. 7000 years ago humans lived in the Eastern Sahara and have left rock art in many places.

Europe and the Middle East provide:
- steppe areas to the North, inhabited by herds of larger animals such as mammoths and reindeer.
- temperate woodland with animals such as deer and boar.
- thick forest with tree-living and ground-living animals, full of food sources but hard to hunt in.
- semi-tropical river valleys such as the Nile and the lower reachers of the Euphrates and Tigris.
- and mountains, with lower slopes inhabited by goats, sheep and rodents.

The fertile crescent is mainly the lower slopes of mountainous upland. Gobekli Tepi and the setllements in that area are around 1500 to 2000 feet above sea level, with fairly rocky soils. It is alluvial soils in river valleys that are most productive for farming so there must be a reason why farming started in a less than ideal place. This could be because of the difficulty of clearing trees for farming, but the tools available for this in 7000 BP were little different to the tools available from the start of the Aurignacian culture. It could be because the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys were more arid at this time, requiring the development of irrigation methods before they became productive for farmers. But this argument would not stop the spread of farming into the Black Sea area.

It could be that the population crash during the younger dryas period was so severe, that it took until 7000 BP before populations had grown to the extent that there was any reason to expand territory and migrate into Europe. But the very existence of Gobekli Tepi indicates that there was a sufficiently large population to build these structures, even by the end of the younger dryas. In the following 5000 years there would be plenty of time for the population to grow more.

Farming supports a set number of people from the area farmed. It is only in recent centuries that we have been able to make a set area feed a growing number of people, by increasing crop yields. This happened to a small extent in the fertile crescent as crop varieties developed, but not sufficiently to remove the need to farm more land to feed more people. It is when there is no new land to be farmed by the sons and daughters that pressure for migration develops, as is seen in the Viking era.

So we are left with a few scenarios that might explain why farming for 5000 years happened only in the fertile crescent, and then relatively rapidly spread out into Europe - carrying the DNA of fertile crescent humans into the gene pool of the hunter-gatherers who continued to live in Europe during and after the younger dryas.

i) Population growth may have remained slow, creating a stable population with no pressure to expand territory or migrate.

ii) People that did migrate out of the fertile crescent reverted to hunting and gathering, which may have continued to be practiced alongside farming.

iii) That from 12,000 BP to 7,000 BP the climate in the areas where Jericho and the Mesopotamian cities developed was very arid, making them inhospitable to life.

iv) Or maybe the populations in the fertile crescent had an aversion to living on lower-lying land even if it was more productive for farming.

The question that I would like an answer to is how long it takes for the salinity of land to reduce to the point where agriculture is possible, if it has been subject to severe and prolonged sea flooding.

Read the story for more.