Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Archeology: Geneticists Trace Migration of Mideast Agriculturalists to Europe

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Archeology: Geneticists Trace Migration of Mideast Agriculturalists to Europe

Article excerpt

Archeology: Geneticists Trace Migration of Mideast Agriculturalists to Europe

"[Dr. Cavalli-Sforzal finds that after the introduction of agriculture in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago, farmers form there spread at the rate of one kilometer, or five-eighths of a mile, a year, eventually settling throughout Europe."

--Louise Levathes, New York Times July 27, 1993

The world generally credits the Sumerians, who lived in the marshlands created by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq, with the development of civilization. Although nearly contemporary river valley civilizations also developed in the Nile Valley of Egypt and the Indus Valley of Pakistan, the Sumerians seem to have been the first people to live in cities and to create a system of writing.

Scientists also regard the "fertile crescent," an arc linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel/Palestine, as the site of the earlier "neolithic revolution," when hunter-gatherers first learned to plant crops, and then created permanent settlements to cultivate, guard and harvest them. The evidence is the fact that wild ancestors of the food crops associated with traditional Middle Eastern and European agriculture are native to the fertile crescent.

Pinpointing the Birth of Agriculture

Now archeologists maintain they have pinpointed the time agriculture was born to just over 10,000 years ago, and the place to within a 100-mile radius of the Dead Sea, between present-day Jordan and Israel. Meanwhile, from unrelated studies, some biological scientists conclude that the agricultural technology developed in that period subsequently spread from the Middle East to northernmost and westernmost Europe not through cultural diffusion, but through actual migrations of the Middle Eastern people who developed it.

According to these scientists, who have examined the genetic makeup of modern populations throughout Europe, agricultural people spread from Turkey as far afield as Finland, Sweden and Ireland, intermarrying with the less numerous hunter-gathering clans they found occupying those lands in a migration that continued for some 6,000 years.

Dr. Frank Hole, an archeologist, and Joy McCoriston, an archeobotanist, both of Yale University, described in American Anthropology in March of 1991 the circumstances under which they believe agriculture was born. Starting around 12,000 BC, they wrote, the summertime climate in the Levant became increasingly hot and dry, reducing the supply of wild game and vegetation and drying up the small lakes upon which foraging people, who already were familiar with wild grain, had depended for water.

Core samples from the ancient lakes indicate the change in climate caused a shift toward Mediterranean-type vegetation, with leathery, water-retaining leaves. Annual grasses, which complete their life cycle in the spring with large seeds in hard cases that will endure through a dry season to germinate with the return of moisture, increasingly replaced perennial vegetation.

The time of this change represented a "convergence" of historical accidents, according to Dr. Hole. "People are ready, they have technology adapted to plant foods," he explained. "The plants themselves are proliferating. And the climate requires people to overcome long periods when foods are not available."

No such earlier convergence has been found elsewhere, according to the Yale scientists, who focused their study upon people of the Natufian culture, named after an archeological site in present-day Palestine called Wadi Al- Natuf. At the time of the climate change, the Natufians had developed the flint sickles and stone mortars and pestles needed to harvest and process wild grains and, based upon the seashell badges of rank found in their tombs, had a developed social structure.

They built stone houses and, the two scientists suspect, it was they who exploited a genetic mutation that occurred within the area's wild einkorn wheat as they began to plant and harvest it. …

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