Tag Archives: Middle East

Uruk and the empires before history

3592-3286 BCE

The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue:


History became legend, legend became myth, 2 (Noah’s flood)

7.5-7.0 thousand years ago

We’ve already seen that the whole Mediterranean basin once dried out for hundreds of thousands of years, only to be flooded in the course of just a few years once its connection with the Atlantic was restored. This happened 5.3 million years ago. Strikingly, recent findings suggest that there may have been human ancestors in the area to watch it happen. There’s been a lot of interest (and some skepticism) about a report of biped footprints from Crete from this time interval. This would fit with some recent claims that very early human ancestors (just after the chimp/human split) might have lived in Europe. But all this is still very much up in the air, and in any case, if any human ancestors were around in the neighborhood, and survived the flood, they hadn’t reached the stage of passing on the story to the kids.

But a similar story, on a smaller scale, may have happened within the possible limits of human remembrance. At the end of the last Ice Age the Black Sea was a freshwater lake, cut off from the Mediterranean. The water level was lower in Black Sea than in Mediterranean, so this was a potentially unstable situation. According to some evidence, around 7,500 years ago the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus, and water poured in, raising sea levels at the rate of up to six inches a day, until the area of the Black Sea expanded by more than 50%. (However some researchers think the flooding was less dramatic.)

Of course just about any reader knows the famous story of Noah and the Flood. Many readers will also know that Noah’s story seems to be connected with an earlier Babylonian flood story. This is recounted, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh travels north from his hometown of Uruk seeking Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that drowned most of his neighbors. (Utnapishtim also tells Gilgamesh about a plant that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh secures the plant. Then a snake eats it. D’oh!)

It’s natural to speculate that the Black Sea flood inspired the Gilgamesh story. But flood stories are found through much of the world, so the story may be an amalgam. Another ingredient may be the story of Ziusudra, maybe a real early Sumerian king from about 2900 BCE who is recorded as surviving a major flood and getting washed into the Persian Gulf.

First farmers

8.8-8.3 thousand years ago

Farming is now spreading out of the Fertile Crescent. Farmers have crossed the Aegean, and appear in the Balkans and Greece. (They got to Cyprus more than a thousand years earlier.) Farmers have also begun spreading out of the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys in China.

There’s an argument among philosophers of a utilitarian bent, started by Derek Parfit, over which is better: a world with just a few very happy people (more happiness per capita), or a world crowded with a multitude of people for whom life is just barely worth living (more total happiness)? (The choice of the latter has been dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.”) Whatever the philosophical merits of one possible world or another, there’s little doubt about which direction social evolution usually takes. “God favors the side with the largest battalions” (a saying often attributed to Napoleon, but actually predating him), and agricultural populations have mostly managed to replace hunter-gatherers, even though they are probably worse fed and sicker on average. The DNA evidence shows that in Europe it’s mostly replacement we’re talking about, not just the spread of new technologies. Migrants originally from Anatolia pushed aside indigenous hunter-gatherers without much interbreeding. In Western Europe the replacement wasn’t entirely peaceful: farmers from the intrusive Linear Pottery culture built fortified settlements, and there was an unpopulated no-man’s land between farmer and hunter-gatherer territory.

For a while, a decade ago, it looked as if the spread of agriculture might also explain much of the distribution the world’s major language families. Peter Bellwood’s book First Farmers made this case. According to this theory, the first farmers in Europe were speakers of an early Indo-European language that eventually gave rise to most of the languages of Europe, as well as Iran and northern India. We’ll see in days to come on Logarithmic History that the story turns out to be more complicated.

Domesticated, I tell you

Agriculture is about 50 million years old, if you count ants and their underground fungus gardens. But human agriculture seems to begin about 10.5 thousand years ago, in the Fertile Crescent in the Near East, with the domestication, in a short space of time, of barley, two varieties of wheat, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. (As we have seen, the domestication of dogs came earlier, maybe a lot earlier.)


Agriculture is one of the greatest changes ever in the human condition, but whether it was a net improvement for the average person is questionable. There’s a lot of evidence that people were worse fed, and sicker, in a lot of places once they started farming. On the other hand, agriculture supports more people per acre than hunting and gathering, usually by several orders of magnitude, so population pressure is probably a big motive for experimenting with planting seeds.

But we are still left with an unsolved question. Why, after tens of thousands of years in which human beings showed little inclination to adopt farming, does it develop independently within a five thousand year span in half a dozen spots around the globe? I’ve run into anthropologists who think that it just took that long for populations to reach carrying capacity, but this shows no appreciation at all for the time scale of exponential population expansion. Any human population with room to grow can increase its numbers tens or hundreds of time on a time scale of less than a thousand years. So something other than population-below-carrying-capacity must have kept people from taking up farming for a long, long time. Two possibilities

1) The Ice Age climate wasn’t suited for farming. This explanation was proposed by Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson, and Robert Bettinger. We’ve already seen that Boyd and Richerson argued that the extreme climate swings of past glacial periods favored adaptation via cultural learning (rather than via individual learning or natural selection). These same swings ­– like the dramatic return to glacial condition in the Younger Dryas Cold Event – might have been too much to allow for prolonged settled life in one place, and attendant experiments with agriculture.

Another version of the argument: here’s an article from last year, The ant and the grasshopper, presenting evidence that seasonality was the key factor in the the invention and adoption of agriculture. In seasonal environments, there was an incentive to store food to even out annual variations. This encouraged people to settle down, and then to start sowing plants and herding animals. The seasonality factor may explain not only when agriculture happened, but also where.

2) People weren’t genetically adapted to settled life. For example, living a settled life generally means more exposure to disease. It could have taken a long time for humans to evolve resistance to diseases of sedentism. Another possibility: natural selection might have affected behavior over this time. There’s an argument to be made that human beings are a self-domesticated species – that we have selected ourselves, as we have selected other animals, to be tamer, and less aggressive. You can see primatologist Richard Wrangham and anthropologist Robert Franciscus at a conference the year before last making this argument, and talking about morphological indicators of domestication. They mainly talk about the transition to Homo sapiens, but some of the same morphological changes occur in the transition from early to later Homo sapiens over the past several tens of thousands of years. It may only be in the last ten thousand years or so that many human populations grew tame enough to live in settled communities and take up agriculture. In both ants and humans, behavioral evolution toward increasing cooperation within the species may have been a precursor to the domestication of other species.

No knead bread

11.7-11.0 thousand years ago.
The Younger Dryas Cold Event, last hurrah of the last glaciation, is over. In the Near East, people are once again settling down in villages, harvesting wild grain, and hunting. Tomorrow on Logarithmic History comes the first generally recognized human domestication of plants – wheat and barley specifically. So to commemorate, here’s a recipe – one of the most popular ever from the New York Times – for no-knead bread that you can make overnight (although early farmers may have favored porridge and flatbread.)


Jared Diamond took a dour view of agriculture, calling it the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.” And fans of the paleo diet claim that you should try to eat like our ancestors did before the invention of farming. But there are counterarguments: Many hunter-gatherers ate more starch and sugar (in the form of honey) than paleo proponents assume. Also, human populations (at least populations of farmers) have evolved since the beginning of agriculture; many of us are no longer quite genetically adapted to a hunter-gatherer diet. Finally, feeding most of the planet on a meat-heavy paleo diet may be impossible.

In any case, studies from the They Institute (“They did this one study …”) show that bread won’t make you fat if you only eat bread you bake yourself. So indulge.

No-knead bread


  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour, more for dusting
  • ¼ teaspoon instant yeast
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons salt
  • Cornmeal or wheat bran as needed


  1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add 1 5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
  2. Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.
  3. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
  4. At least a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.


14.6-13.8 thousand years ago.

The last glacial phase looks like it’s coming to an end, and people in the Natufian culture of the Levant look like they’re gearing up to invent agriculture. They’ve settled in villages, and are harvesting and storing grain, but not yet sowing it. Possibly they’re brewing beer for feasts. This turns out to be a false start though. In a thousand years or so the glaciers will come back for a final hurrah (the Younger Dryas event), and only after this will farming actually get going.

If you plug different frequencies of different genes from a bunch of populations into a computer and ask it to generate a tree where genetically similar populations share closer branches, you get something like this:

cavalli-sforza tree

This is from the pioneering synthesis of genetics by Cavali-Sforza and co-workers, back in 1994. This looks like a nice diagram of humans spreading out of Africa, maybe some taking a southern route (the Southeast Asian branch), and others a northern route (North Eurasian), and I used to teach it this way in anthropology classes. But as we look at ancient DNA, we’re finding that things are more complicated. Even 14,000 years ago, the structure of populations is different from what we’re used to today. We’ve already mentioned the Ancestral North Eurasians earlier, who just maybe could have spoken a language ancestral to Greenberg’s Eurasiatic family.

In the Near East, too, things were complicated. A paper out just last year shows that there were three very different hunting and gathering populations in Anatolia, Western Iran, and the Levant. Folks in Iran and the Levant were as genetically distinct as modern Europeans and Chinese! Either the Near East during this period had just been settled by migrants from widely separated places, or there had been strong barriers to gene flow in place for some time. Since then people in the area have mixed a lot.

Each of these populations of hunters and gatherers will give rise to its own set of farmers. The Natufians will contribute a lot to the ancestry of later farmers in the Levant. And apparently each set of farmers will send migrants off in a different direction: the Anatolians to Europe, the Iranians (or some Caucasian relatives) to the Eurasian steppe, and the Levantines to East Africa. It’s possible that the Natufians were speakers of a language ancestral to the Afro-Asiatic family, one of the oldest widely accepted language families, including Arabic and Hebrew, Somali and Oromo.

And here’s Razib Khan on our new understanding of how different ancient population structure was.

Saddam’s kin

December 2003-August 2005

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, it took more than eight months before Saddam Hussein, the former dictator of the country, was captured, on December 13, 2003. Tracking down Saddam was less a matter of deploying cutting-edge super-technology, and more a matter of rediscovering basic social anthropology. Here is a news story on the topic.

The gist is that two junior American military intelligence analysts began with a long list of about 9,000 names. They gradually narrowed this down to a “Mongo List” of about 300 people, tightly interconnected by blood and marriage, who were involved in the resistance and connected with Saddam. Rounding up and interrogating central figures on the list ultimately led to Saddam himself. This approach was successful because Saddam’s immediate power base was his clan and kin.

In previous blogposts we have considered how different Eurasian civilizations developed different compromises between state power, established religion, and patrilineal clans. In the Middle East, clan-based politics have continued to be important right up to the present. In China, a millennia-old tradition of patriarchal clan authority was violently assaulted in the course of the Communist Revolution. In Europe, the move away from clan-based politics came much earlier. The decline of royal and aristocratic rule in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the rise of mass politics further weakened the rule of the clan (except insofar as the nation itself operated as a kind of imagined kin group). Hence the contrast between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Western Europe’s premier Evil Dictatorship: compiling a “Mongo List” of 300 of Hitler’s closet relations by blood and marriage wouldn’t get you far in understanding Nazi rule.

Here’s a valuable book on The Rule of the Clan, and a different take on “clannishness” across cultures.