Growing grain in ancient Mesopotamia

A recent study sheds new light on the agricultural and political economy that underpinned the growth of some of the world’s oldest cities in Mesopotamia, in present-day northern Syria[1].

Analysis of charred ancient grains reconstructed the conditions under which crops grew, building up a picture of how farming practice changed over time. Labour-intensive practices such as manuring/middening and water management formed an integral part of the agricultural strategy from the seventh millennium BC.
However, as populations in these early cities swelled, increasing demand for more food, farmers strove to cultivate larger areas of land, rather than plough more resources - such as manure - into existing, more intensively managed fields. Earlier research showed that amino acid δ(15)N values of grains and fava beans could provide prove if crops were grown in manured or unmanured soil[2].

Extensive, land-hungry agriculture relies heavily on the ability to access more arable land and to exploit specialized plough animals, both of which could be monopolized by powerful families and institutions.

The findings of this research therefore reveal how the growing importance of arable land, which could be controlled by the ruling few, led to increasing social inequality as urban populations grew.

‘We found that the rise of early cities in northern Mesopotamia depended on radical expansion of the scale of farming,' Professor Amy Bogaard said. 'As a result, cereals were grown under increasingly poor soil conditions: with less manuring and replenishment of nutrients. It was a solution that enabled enormous urban agglomerations to develop, but was risky when environmental or political conditions changed. Examining how prehistoric farmers coped with changing conditions could yield some useful advice for modern day governments facing similar pressures of growing populations and changing environments.'

[1] Styring et al: Isotope evidence for agricultural extensification reveals how the world's first cities were fed in Nature Plants – 2017
[2] Styring et al: The effect of manuring on cereal and pulse amino acid δ(15)N values in Phytochemistry - 2014 

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