Pottery Neolithic Landscape Modification at Dhra'

By Kuijt, Ian; Finlayson, Bill et al. | Antiquity, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Pottery Neolithic Landscape Modification at Dhra'


Kuijt, Ian, Finlayson, Bill, MacKay, Jode, Antiquity


Introduction

Recent research by anthropologists, economists and geographers has focused new attention on the extent to which early small-scale societies modified the landscape around them (Smith & Wishnie 2000; Terrell et al. 2003). It is argued that there is, in general, a qualitative and quantitative change in the nature of this modification during the transition from hunter-gatherer to farming societies, and that this occurred widely across both time and space (e.g. Knapp & Ashmore 1999). From a social perspective, this process has been viewed as a means of domesticating the environment and, certainly in North-west Europe, landscape modification has become an accepted fact of early Neolithic life, mostly revealed in the creation of landscapes through ritual practice (Bradley 1998). From the alternative perspective of human ecology, ecosystem engineering is seen as a more practical development. Modification of, and interaction with, the local landscape includes such things as the clearing of forested areas, the construction of fields and pastures and the construction of irrigation systems, all with the intention of engineering new, or modifying existing, ecosystems (Smith & Wishnie 2000).

People often modify the landscape with the intention of increasing the growth of plant resources as well as of reducing its variability between growing years. The labour and time outlay varies depending upon the task involved. For example, constructing terrace walls usually requires much more time than land clearance or spreading fertilizer. In these cases, however, it is clear that there are practical reasons for the investment of time, labour, and resources and that there would have been a positive return. How rapidly that return would be achieved is less clear, and in many cases would have been fairly long-term. The social and ecological aspects to these investments are complementary and may reflect a fundamental change in attitude and conception of the world--now seen as something that can be modified (Ingold 2000). Apart from the clear understanding that cultivation involves altering the world there is very little direct evidence of ecosystem modification in Northwest Europe to parallel the construction of monuments. In the Near East, however, the first well-known form of modification is the development of irrigation systems. Arguably tell sites also represent a form of monumentality with the repeated occupation of the same place creating an increasing visible settlement, but it is hard to be sure of intentionality until the construction of Bronze Age walls.

Archaeological research in the New and Old Worlds is providing a complementary perspective on the process for, and timing of, early human modification of the environment (Mabry 1996). These studies have highlighted that in some cases human modification of the landscape, or human ecosystem engineering, was both more complex and older than previously understood. In many cases, as one would expect, it appears that modification of the landscape, at least as related to agricultural food production, was particularly important in environmentally marginal areas with pronounced seasonal variation of rainfall that was susceptible to soil erosion. Research in the American Southwest, for example, has documented that Native American groups employed a wide range of complex techniques for controlling access to water at different points of the agricultural season and created field walls for soil and water retention (Hunt et al. 2005). Field research in Yemen has demonstrated that people began to manage water flow around 5100 years ago by employing check dams in small tributaries along the Wadi Sana (McCorriston & Oches 2001; McCorriston et al. 2002).

Archaeological research on the Neolithic period of the Near East has documented some of our earliest systematic evidence for direct modification of the environment related to food production (Figure 1). …

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