Large-Scale Cereal Processing before Domestication during the Tenth Millennium Cal BC in Northern Syria

By Willcox, George; Stordeur, Danielle | Antiquity, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Large-Scale Cereal Processing before Domestication during the Tenth Millennium Cal BC in Northern Syria


Willcox, George, Stordeur, Danielle, Antiquity


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Introduction

The adoption of cultivation in the Near East involved a shift from gathering a broad spectrum of plants during the Natufian to cultivation of a reduced range of cereals and pulses during the PPNA and PPNB (Weiss et al. 2004). Charred cereal grains are abundant on PPNA Euphrates sites, but what was the scale of cereal exploitation? How important were cereals for the subsistence economy? In this paper we will attempt to answer these questions by examining archaeobotanical and archaeological discoveries at the PPNA site of Jerf el Ahmar in northern Syria, occupied between 9500 and 9000 cal BC. We conclude with a brief discussion of the regional and social implications that lends support to recent theories on the origins of agriculture presented by Trevor Watkins (2010).

Pre-domestic cultivation, that is, cultivation of morphologically wild plants, has been suggested for PPNA levels at Mureybet, Jerf el Ahmar and Tell 'Abr 3, and for early PPNB levels at Dja'de and Cayonu (van Zeist & Bakker-Heeres 1984; van Zeist & Roller 1994; Colledge 1998; Willcox et al. 2008). In the southern Levant, cultivation of wild cereals has been proposed for the PPNA sites of Netiv Hagdud, Gilgal, Dhra, el-Hemmeh and Zahrat adh-Dhra (Edwards et al. 2004; Weiss et al. 2006; Kuijt & Finlayson 2009; C. White pers. comm.). Arguments for pre-domestic cultivation at PPNA sites have been based on weed assemblages, reduction of gathered plants, the introduction of cultivars, changes in grain size, and the presence of staples outside their natural habitats (Colledge 1998; Willcox 2004; Fuller 2007; Willcox et al. 2008). The economic scale of cereal exploitation is also considered an important factor by some scholars (Weiss et al. 2006; Kuijt & Finlayson 2009).

Excavation at Jeff el Ahmar exposed a surface area of over 1000[m.sup.2] with 11 distinct levels, providing a wide range of architectural features (Stordeur et al. 2000; Stordeur & Abbas 2002; Stordeur 2003, 2004, 2006, 2010). With a dataset of over 30 000 identifications of charred plants (excluding charcoal) and the discovery of storage structures, cereal processing installations, rodent activity, grinding tools such as querns, and widespread use of chaff, we were able to assess the scale and significance of cereal exploitation.

Jerf el Ahmar is one of five contemporary PPNA sites which include Mureybet (Cauvin 1977; Ibanez 2008), Cheikh Hassan (Cauvin 1980), Tell 'Abr 3 (Yartah 2005) and the recently discovered early levels at Dja'de (Coqueugniot pers. comm. and 2000). These sites, situated along the left bank of the Euphrates (Figure 1), were occupied at the beginning of the Holocene during a period of climatic amelioration (Willcox et al. 2009). They have similar architectural, symbolic and chipped-stone traits, suggesting a cultural unity (Stordeur & Abbas 2002; Helmer et al. 2004; Stordeur 2010). Farther north in south-east Turkey, the sites of Gobekli (Schmidt 2007), Demirkoy and Hallan Cemi (Rosenberg 1999; Savard et al. 2006) present similar parallels, but in these cases charred cereals are less frequent.

The region where the Euphrates sites are situated receives 250-300mm of rain per annum in the north, where dry farming is practiced under the present-day climate. To the south, the area receives only 150-250mm making dry farming unreliable. During the Early Holocene more moisture may have been available, with lower temperatures and perhaps higher rainfall.

The charred plant remains

The charred plant assemblages from Jerfel Ahmar, Tell 'Abr 3, Mureybet and Dj'ade include over 120 taxa and over 70 000 identifications, excluding charcoal. The data were obtained from flotation samples collected from diverse contexts such as buildings destroyed by fire and hearths where charred plant remains occurred in situ. Other samples came from floor and ash layers where gradual accumulation represented multiple burning events. …

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