Near East (Including Anatolia): Geographic Description and General Chronology of the Paleolithic and Neolithic
State of Knowledge and Current Debates
The initial human expansion out of Africa in the Lower Pleistocene (ca. 2.6 mya – 0.78 mya)
The spread of modern human anatomy out of Africa, across the Middle-Late Pleistocene transition (marine isotope stages 5–6, ca. 170–80 kya)
Following a later Middle Paleolithic episode in which European Neandertal anatomy spread into the Near East (ca. 80–50 kya), the decisive expansion of Upper Paleolithic technology – associated with modern human anatomy – in the Late Pleistocene (ca. 50–20 kya)
In addition, the transition from the final Paleolithic – known in the region as the Epipaleolithic – to the Neolithic (seen at a long-term scale from ca. 20 kya − 8 kya) is often viewed through the lens of the transition to sedentism, agriculture, and village life, which emerged “full-blown” in the Prepottery Neolithic B period of the Near East. Notably, the Near Eastern case may represent the earliest primary prehistoric transition from a hunting and gathering subsistence mode to a predominantly agricultural one (Bar-Yosef 1998a; Sherratt 2007).
The theoretical emphasis in this essay is on a complex systems evolutionary approach for considering the debates and open questions surrounding the Near East’s crossroads setting for recurrent, supracontinental, biocultural change during the Stone Age. It is emphasized that new scientific insights, novel questions, and critical humanistic concerns and lessons drawn about Near Eastern prehistory must rely on interdisciplinary integration of evolutionary biology, ecology, environmental science, and diverse social science frameworks, including both quantitative and interpretive cultural approaches.
Near Eastern Geography, Climate, and Ecology in the Pleistocene and Early Holocene
The Near East is generally considered to encompass a large portion of Southwestern Asia, including the following key subregions: the eastern Mediterranean Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and adjoining Transjordanian and Syrian plateau semiarid zones, Mesopotamia, the arc of the Taurus-Zagros Mountains, the Taurus-Zagros foothills, and the Anatolian peninsula (see Fig. 1). The Near East is geographically conspicuous as the link between Africa and the rest of Eurasia, placing it at the center of the largest contiguous landmass that has existed since the Pliocene.
Major Geographic Structure of the Near East
In identifying and understanding the paths that ecologically connect Africa with Eurasia, paleoanthropological research has focused on how overall geographic structure has shaped a persistent climatic and phytogeographic pattern among the major regions that comprise the Near East. In general, the Levant is relatively well watered by a highly seasonal, westerly winter monsoon system. This has yielded a robust Mediterranean environment extending west-east, from the coast to the Transjordanian and western Syrian plateaux. The Anatolian plateau and much of the Taurus-Zagros arc, with their higher elevations, also receive substantial precipitation, but the combination of a more continental Eurasian setting and higher altitudes notably results in colder winter temperatures and, often, snowfall. The Arabian Peninsula is arid, with a band of semiarid steppe extending in an arc from the Transjordanian and Syrian plateaux across Mesopotamia. The Near East is dominated, then, by semiarid or arid habitats. However, the Tigris-Euphrates valley in Mesopotamia has a geomorphological history that can be traced to the late Pliocene (Yacoub 2011), and substantial geological basins in semiarid zones – including El Kowm in Syria and Azraq in Jordan – have supported strongly flowing springs and widespread wetlands from at least the Middle Pleistocene onward. In these areas that otherwise received very little precipitation, stable hydrological features ensured permanent freshwater corridors and oases. This would have made the entire zone from Arabia to Mesopotamia attractive for mobile hunter-gatherer groups. In fact, as Rose (2010) has detailed, the Persian Gulf Basin would have been a wetland for large stretches of the Pleistocene, fed by strong freshwater springs. Even when prevailing climatic conditions were at their driest (occurring during the most extreme hot and cold hemispheric or global episodes), predictable major wetlands and riverine corridors would have persisted across the Arabian and Mesopotamian zones.
Recently, researchers have more broadly emphasized just how important this geographic structure has been for Pleistocene human evolution (Groucutt et al. 2015). Rich alluvial systems or wetland basins situated in extensive semiarid or arid regions characterize not only the Arabia-Mesopotamia-Persian Gulf Basin region but also the entirety of North Africa. The sub-Saharan African geographical core zone of human evolution has been linked to Eurasia via this supracontinental arid/semiarid belt that was conspicuously dissected and dotted by major permanent rivers and oases. When human populations were growing or at prevailing carrying capacity in sub-Saharan Africa, forager groups would have budded off, almost always able to exploit predictably located resource-rich habitats along the Nile drainage, in North African oases, or along Arabian coastal zones accessible via Bab al-Mandeb (see Fig. 1). A high-mobility hunter-gatherer strategy of movement along rivers and coasts and between spring-fed wetland basins would have involved long-distance moves along rich corridors embedded in an otherwise ecologically impoverished desert/steppe belt. Quite simply, the high contrast in ecological productivity between rivers and wetlands, on the one hand, and desert and semiarid steppe, on the other, would have essentially funneled mobile hunter-gatherers from the sub-Saharan African core to the Eurasian periphery in Pleistocene human evolution. It should be noted that occasionally, this very same structure would have supported funneling hunter-gatherer migration from Eurasia into sub-Saharan Africa, but paleoanthropological and genetic evidence overwhelmingly suggests that sub-Saharan Africa was a dominant net population source for migration throughout most of the Pleistocene (Mallick et al. 2016; Pagani et al. 2016).
The Near East and Climate Change
Human prehistory in the Near East, of course, has not simply been determined by the basic geographic structure of environmental variation. Biocultural evolution in the genus Homo has been a complex systemic process, and an important environmental dimension of the complex biocultural systems evolution has involved major global or Northern Hemisphere Pleistocene and early Holocene climate changes. These climate dynamics have driven fluctuations in boundary locations and in the scale of difference in seasonality and ecological productivity between adjacent habitat zones. Again, these include the Arabian-Mesopotamian arid/semiarid belt, the Levant, the Taurus-Zagros foothills, the Taurus-Zagros Mountain arc, and the Anatolian plateau.
The Pleistocene and early Holocene periods were marked by recurrent swings in prevailing temperature and rainfall levels, unfolding at scales from centuries to millennia, and this environmental dynamism was only magnified by the Near East’s geological and climatic complexity. The region is situated at the confluence of still active tectonic trends, reflecting a relatively ancient collision of the Arabian plate with Eurasia, resulting in closure of the Tethys Sea and formation of the Taurus and Zagros mountains, the more recent Miocene formation of the Mediterranean Basin, and the Pliocene onset of rifting from East Africa to the Levant. The region’s climate is dominated – from south to north – by the Saharo-Arabian desert belt, westerly Mediterranean monsoon systems, and westerly continental systems. Yet, because of the region’s tectonic history, we see striking topographic and geological variation in the Levant, Anatolia, and the Taurus-Zagros mountains. This has generally meant that within and between the subregions comprising the Near East, gradients between warmer and cooler and wetter and drier climatic patterns could be especially sharp, well within a day’s walk. During generally warm and humid hemispheric or global climatic swings, the Near East would have had an especially high proportion of ecotonal habitat, with immediate access to rich forest, gallery forest, wetland, and grassland plant and animal food resources. During cool and dry climatic episodes, well-watered lower-elevation regions – conspicuously including the southern Levant, the narrow northern Levantine and Anatolian coasts, and the Taurus-Zagros foothills – would have been important ecological refugium zones within the larger region. These refugium subregions would have maintained substantial year-round plant and animal resource diversity in a mosaic of forest, grassland, wetland, and littoral habitats. Moreover, the zones adjoining major rivers – notably the lower courses of the Tigris and Euphrates – and wetland basins in semiarid habitats sometimes experienced grassland soil development during moderately cool periods. This is because atmospheric precipitation increased, while riverine and lacustrine evaporation rates fell. Such periods included portions of marine isotope stages 4 and 3 (including the intervals ca. 75–50 kya and 40–30 kya) (Torfstein et al. 2013). Paths between year-round refugia – including the southern Levant – and wetland patches nestled in adjacent semiarid subregions would have become more stable and ecologically productive during moderately cool episodes. While it is currently possible to sketch the pattern of ecological connections between subregions under recurrent Pleistocene climatic fluctuations, their complexity makes it an outstanding challenge to link specific climate changes to particular developments in human biocultural evolution.
Microenvironmental Variation Within and Between Near Eastern Subregions
Indeed, ongoing research continues to provide striking detail about variation in past Near Eastern environments. In this section, the resulting significant microenvironmental variation – observed at multiple scales between 1 and 1000 km – is examined more closely. For instance, the west-east geological and topographic structure of the Mediterranean Levant is generally similar from south to north – with coastal hills or mountains, interior valleys, a western rift escarpment mountain range, a deep rift valley, and an eastern plateau. Yet, if we compare the southern portion (roughly from the Gaza coast to the Israel-Lebanon border) to the northern portion (roughly from southern Lebanon to the Syria-Turkey border), it may be emphasized that the slightly higher latitude and substantially higher elevation of the Lebanon Mountains increase the role of snowfall and snowmelt on water availability (through spring and lake formation), vegetation patterns, and landscape stability and erosion dynamics, when compared to the southern Levant. Moreover, the higher elevation of the Bekaa portion of the rift valley – when compared to the Jordan Valley-Dead Sea basin to the south – entails substantially colder, often inhospitable winter conditions. Thus, although the southern Levant also exhibits dramatic microenvironmental variation, often over very short distances, we see relatively warmer winter temperatures from the broader Mediterranean coastal plain, across the lower interior hills and mountains, into the much deeper rift valley (the Jordan and Dead Sea basin), to the Transjordanian plateau. The result is less temperature seasonality and greater overall environmental productivity in the southern than in the northern Levant.
It is instructive to consider how this example of subregional environmental variation would have been significant for hominin foragers over distances of 10s to 100s of kilometers, well within the range of macroband or dialect group territories of ethnographically or ethnohistorically documented hunter-gatherers. Such geographic variation may be most clearly appreciated for Lower and Middle Pleistocene OOA expansion episodes, which – according to all available evidence – predated the adoption of tailored clothing and rigid footwear technology. Modern human thermoregulatory adaptations – in the absence of effective insulating technological solutions – allow us to withstand sustained prevailing temperatures no lower than 0 ° C without suffering physiological consequences that have immediate- or long-term stress-related fitness effects. Neandertals and cold-adapted modern humans, with shorter limbs and short but wider torsos, would only have achieved limited adaptive benefits, slightly pushing the low-temperature tolerance level or increasing endurance under conditions of marginal balance between energy intake and heat loss. Of course, clinal selection for thermoregulatory adaptation across latitudinal gradients – even in the face of extensive gene flow – is well documented for contemporary humans. Still, even cold-adapted human populations – including Neandertals – would not have been able to sustain extended activity in subfreezing winter daytime conditions without insulating clothing (White 2006). At higher elevations substantially more habitat in the northern Levant would have had subfreezing winter conditions for much of the Pleistocene. During extreme hemispheric or global cold climatic episodes, the cold-season duration and spatial extent of such habitat would have increased more in the northern than in the southern Levant. Thus, during the warmer spring, summer, and fall seasons, the northern and southern Levant alike would have provided abundant freshwater sources and diverse large animal, small animal, and high-quality plant (fruit, seed, tuber, and nut) resources. Yet, the southern Levant would have encompassed more winter refugium habitat, as well as more easily passable long-distance west-east corridors to rich permanent lakes, wetlands, and springs in the semiarid or arid zones that extend from the Arabian Peninsula northward to Mesopotamia (including important permanent oases with deposits stretching back to the Middle Pleistocene, such as the Azraq, Jordan, and Ain Hummal, Syria).
For much of the Pleistocene, then – from the earliest expansion of the genus Homo out of Africa to the onset of the Upper Paleolithic – local hominin carrying capacities in the Near East would have been limited, not only by average annual environmental productivity and water availability but also by winter temperature and snow cover. More specifically, if winter represented the season during which per capita hominin energy and nutrient balance (calories and vital nutrients in vs. out) reached an annual minimum, then carrying capacity would have been especially strongly limited by seasonality on a subregional scale in the Near East. This would have had a vital implication, in turn, for the hominin behavioral dynamics shaping colonization and range expansions out of Africa and into Eurasia via the Near East. The subregional diversity seen throughout the region – exemplified by the northern vs. southern Levant’s latitudinal and topographic differences – entails that seasonal winter zones of relatively high temperature and ecological productivity would have been localized centers of higher hominin population density and social interaction intensity. Topographically accessible paths between such winter refugia would also have been particularly important for relieving seasonally concentrated social scalar stress, or for maintaining social relationships and sharing information for reducing risk across a wider territory.
Winter refugium subregions – with relatively high moisture and limited winter cold temperatures – would include most of the southern Levant, coastal areas of the northern Levant and Anatolia, and the middle Tigris-Euphrates valleys and lower Taurus foothills. In semiarid or arid areas, more localized winter refugia would have existed at major oases, inland lakes, and wetlands. During Pleistocene periods of lower sea level, the basin that is now the Persian Gulf would have been a much larger marshland or delta landscape, potentially becoming an additional refugium. The lower Tigris-Euphrates valleys would have provided a rich year-round corridor, cutting through a semiarid zone, connecting the lower Mesopotamian/Persian Gulf delta and middle Tigris-Euphrates refugia. Populations in the Mediterranean and Negev-Sinai semiarid zones in the southern Levant would have been connected to much of Arabia and Mesopotamia – via long-distance residential mobility or long-term demographic migration, through a network of seasonally wet wadis, wetlands, and lakes (Groucutt and Petraglia 2012).
Environmental Implications for Human Evolution
This seasonality-based human evolutionary ecology framework sets up a strong expectation that, although the Mediterranean zone and rift basin in the southern Levant would have provided the richest winter refugium zone just outside of Africa, this well-studied subregion’s own prehistory cannot be understood without exploring in greater detail how it is interconnected with the rest of the Near East. At the same time, of course, increasing research interest in the Arabian Peninsula should continue to be contextualized within the broader Near East, too. Recent arguments may be correct that the Bab al-Mandeb-Arabian Coast was a more important long-term physical connector between Africa and Eurasia than was the Nile Valley-Sinai-southern Levant. However, the evolutionary ecology of hunting and gathering in the terrestrial, omnivorous, extractive, and socially intensive human niche carries some necessary implications for understanding human population dynamics. Recurrent prehistoric demographic migration streams or expansion waves beginning in Africa and spreading via the Near East into Eurasia would have unfolded over millennial scales, as migration or wave-front advance rates resolved across multiple generations. In order for any mobile Near Eastern hunter-gatherer population to feed such sustained intergenerational demographic growth, it would have to exhibit ecologically resilient socio-technological adaptations across multiple subregional and regional phytogeographic zones.
Richer winter refugia – the southern Levant, the narrower coastal patches of the northern Levant and Anatolia, and the Middle Tigris-Euphrates valleys/southern Taurus-Zagros foothills
Winter refugium corridors or patches embedded in semiarid and arid zones – most notably the Lower Tigris-Euphrates valley and Persian Gulf Basin, along with stable or fluctuating wetlands, rivers, and streams across Syria, Jordan, southern Mesopotamia, and the Arabian Peninsula
Ecologically rich zones that are inhospitable for at least a month or more in winter – including higher-altitude portions of the northern Levant, much of the Anatolian plateau, and the Taurus-Zagros mountains
This framework is important, in part, because it allows us to model Pleistocene biocultural evolution in the Near East at a finer scale and more accurate level of complexity. While climate change is still considered a critical factor for evolutionary and behavioral change, it is recast from being a primary factor, such as simply forcing the development or disappearance of additional green corridors across the North African-Arabian arid belt. It becomes, instead, an exogenous long-term variable affecting the position of ecological boundaries and the overall ecological differences between adjacent subregions – with the biocultural evolutionary implications varying under prevailing conditions of demography, biological variation, social organization, technology, and socioculturally produced symbolic structures.
Trends in Pleistocene and Early Holocene Biocultural Evolution
The ecological framework outlined in the previous section sets the stage for looking at the well-recognized and long-debated four prehistoric Near Eastern hallmarks noted in the introduction. This section aims to consider thoroughly the evolutionary issues that may be elucidated by applying the complex systems ecological perspective to the available paleoanthropological evidence associated with each hallmark.
Earliest Expansion of the Genus Homo: Out of Africa, into the Near East
Even more than the Lower Pleistocene archaeological record in North Africa, the southern Levantine sites strongly – albeit indirectly – support the inference that early Homo, with evolutionary origins in sub-Saharan Africa, exploited Saharan green corridors and oases in the process of population growth and range expansion. Yet, the extreme rarity or absence of Lower Pleistocene archaeological sites in the northern Levant, Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Taurus-Zagros arc, and the Anatolian plateau suggests that hominin exploitation of patchy wetland corridors/oases or higher-altitude warm-season resources was limited, most likely occurring during relatively (geologically) ephemeral warm and humid climatic periods. Such periodic exploitation has been documented at Kaletepe Deresi 3 in central Turkey, dating to ca. 1 mya (Slimak et al. 2008). Successful Lower Pleistocene Eurasian range expansion may be clearly interpolated, not only by the rich record from Dmanisi but also by the establishment of substantial Lower Pleistocene hominin populations in eastern Asia and traces of Lower Pleistocene colonization in Western Europe. While future research will likely reveal more significant traces of Lower Pleistocene human settlement in Near Eastern subregions outside the southern Levant, the behavioral ecology of hunting and gathering predicts that population densities would have been very low where aridity or cold winter temperatures limited food or water availability and strongly raised the daily energetic costs of foraging. From a taphonomic perspective, we would expect archaeologically visible early sites to be very rare in the desert/steppe belt or at higher elevations. A further implication for Lower Pleistocene human evolution is that the initial expansion out of Africa may have involved recurrent local extinction and substantial chronological gaps in subregional occupation in much of the Near East.
Ecological Selective Pressures and Adaptive Evolution in the Lower Pleistocene
The Lower Pleistocene would have been a (very long) period during which evolutionary selection pressures remained high for embodied socio-cognitive adaptations to reliably exploit diverse, dispersed, and often unpredictable plant and animal food resources. Such emergent adaptative phenotypes would likely have included increasingly complex linguistic information exchange; symbolic construction of self and other; ability to conceptualize narratives that enabled construction of memory, future planning, and decision-making; participation in larger, more stable long-term social networks; and coevolving life-history patterns of extended juvenile dependency periods and more intensive, cooperative parental transfer of resources to offspring. These adaptations in modern humans represent the evolutionary inheritance of long-term Pleistocene changes in brain ontogeny and anatomy, in the neuroendocrine system overall, and in growth and aging patterns across the life span. They now fit Homo sapiens to a globally distributed, ecologically dominant, and increasingly disruptive niche – one that is not only terrestrial, omnivorous, and extractive but also conspicuously socially intensive. Yet, there is very little clear evidence and, as a result, little scientific consensus about how these critical adaptations coevolved with the human niche in the Lower Pleistocene (and through the rest of the Pleistocene, for that matter). What was the tempo and mode of their evolution? More specifically, to what extent was punctuated evolution involved in the spread of adaptive phenotypes, driven by recurrent speciation, range expansion, and competitive exclusion of one Homo population by another? Alternatively, to what extent did socio-cognitive and life-history adaptations evolve in a gradual pattern within a framework of multiregional gene flow between sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia, via the Near East?
The Tempo and Mode of Human Evolution in the Middle Pleistocene
Two important trends are clear concerning hominin macroevolution in the subsequent Middle Pleistocene (ca. 0.78–0.13 mya; Fig. 3). The first is that sub-Saharan Africa remained a dominant source of population – and thus genetic variation – spreading via green corridors and oases across the Saharo-Arabian desert/steppe belt into Eurasia (Groucutt et al. 2015; Hublin et al. 2017). The second is that, whatever the nature of biological evolution in socio-cognitive and life-history adaptations during the Middle Pleistocene, the archaeological traces of human behavior indicate complex group-based omnivorous foraging – including hunting of prime adults from large ungulate prey species – along with social post-capture mobile-camp processing and consumption activity and complex group-based technological raw material provisioning and production patterns. In the Near East, recent exciting analyses have provided such evidence dating to the very end of the Lower Pleistocene at Gesher Benot Ya’akov, where researchers report the earliest well-documented instance of controlled use of campfires associated with omnivorous food remains and stone tools (Goren-Inbar 2011). Work at Qesem cave, dating to the mid-Middle Pleistocene, has yielded further contextual archaeological evidence for large game hunting and food sharing in a mobile camp setting (Stiner et al. 2011). Perhaps even more importantly, at least some of these social hunter-gatherer behaviors are documented within the arid/semiarid belt and higher-elevation zones – for instance, at the later Lower Paleolithic ‘Ayoun Qedim site in the Jafr Basin, Jordan (Rech et al. 2007) – where year-round occupation would have been marginally productive compared to the southern Levant or the Taurus-Zagros foothills.
The Initial Spread of Modern Human Anatomy: Out of Africa, into the Near East
As important as this earliest evidence of mortuary ritual may be, the debate remains the same over how – in terms of macroevolutionary tempo and mode – the underlying socio-cognitive capacity evolved. Do we see a punctuated spread of anatomically modern human (AMH) populations that evolved in North and sub-Saharan Africa? Or do we see a more complex, gradual process of biocultural evolution, involving a multilevel social and biological interaction of local Near Eastern groups with sporadically expanding African groups, of groups in richer winter refugium habitats with groups in more marginal or patchier zones within the Near East, and of Near Eastern groups with neighboring South Asian, Central Asian, southern Caucasus, and European ones? Of course, the actual answer may be somewhere between the two theoretical extremes of punctuated speciation/replacement and biocultural gradualism.
The evidence for initial Upper Pleistocene Near Eastern AMH populations descending from late Middle Pleistocene African ancestors and constituting hunter-gatherer societies who practiced mortuary rituals may be especially attention-grabbing. The Near Eastern data on emerging complexity in Upper Pleistocene human evolution becomes even more striking when one considers that all of the carefully excavated and radiometrically dated burials in the Near East from the subsequent period, ca. 80–50 kya, include individuals with predominantly Neandertal anatomical features (Bar-Yosef 1994). Radiometric analyses of animal teeth that may be stratigraphically associated with the Neandertal female adult burial from the Tabun Cave suggest that humans with Neandertal traits may have been in the southern Levant even earlier, contemporaneous with the anatomically modern humans interred at Skhul and Qafzeh (Grün and Stringer 2000). Uranium-thorium dating of calcitic crusts forming on an isolated anatomically modern human skull cap from Manot Cave most likely places the re-expansion of African or Saharo-Arabian populations beginning ca. 60–50 kya (Hershkovitz et al. 2015). In this critical period, it is currently unclear how the population-biological turnover – with anatomically modern humans largely replacing Neandertals – actually unfolded across the entirety of the Near East. However, new breakthroughs in genomic analyses of modern and ancient genomes alike suggest that Neandertal and anatomically modern human populations sporadically admixed over thousands of years, most likely in the Near East (Mallick et al. 2016). This is broadly consistent with the shifting morphological patterns of the Near Eastern human fossils themselves, across the Middle-Upper Pleistocene boundary.
It is important to remember that Neandertals were a western Eurasian network of populations that exhibited a suite of cranio-dental and postcranial anatomical features tending to distinguish them, not only from African AMH but also from Asian and possible archaic African populations in the late Middle-Upper Pleistocene timeframe, from ca. 200 kya onward. Neandertals themselves may be assumed to have descended, for the most part, from western Eurasian populations established during earlier Lower or Middle Pleistocene expansions out of Africa. The African AMH morphological pattern incorporates a relatively high, rounded cranial vault, limited midfacial prognathism, strong basicranial flexion, chin formation, and a relatively narrow torso with non-cold-adapted brachial and crural indices (resulting in a higher encephalization quotient). The Neandertals, in contrast, tend to display strong midfacial prognathism associated with a straight or receding mandibular symphyseal region, a distinctive occipital morphology involving lambdoidal flattening, posterior “bunning,” a wide suprainiac fossa, maximal cranial breadth in the supramastoid region, and small, medio-inferiorly oriented mastoid processes. Neandertal postcranial anatomy tends to be robust, combining cold-adapted torso shape and limb proportions with locomotive adaptations for high activity levels. Although Neandertal brains were as large or larger than those of AMH (fully in the modern human range), their higher body mass indices yield an encephalization level similar to that of Middle Pleistocene archaic Homo. At least for males – who are better represented among postcranial remains – the Neandertal anatomical pattern is suggestive of high caloric intake and high energy flux. As a consequence, reconstructing Neandertal diet and behavior is vital for modeling possible differences with AMH in activity adaptations and their life-history consequences in terms of growth rates, growth-maturation trade-offs, adult maintenance-fertility trade-offs, and intergenerational resource transfer effects imposed by variation in adult longevity. The complete anatomical pattern is most often observed on European Neandertals dating to the Upper Pleistocene, in the period ca. 130–45 kya. This pattern is also observed on Neandertal skeletons from burials in Shanidar Cave, located in the Zagros foothills – set in a key Near Eastern winter refugium zone. The Shanidar burials have been dated by conventional radiocarbon assays on associated charcoal fragments, and although there is substantial uncertainty over such ages, the burials probably date to (very roughly) 50 kya (Solecki 1971).
It is emphasized that the Neandertal anatomical pattern fully emerges earliest in Western Europe, ca. 200–120 kya, and consequently, the appearance of Neandertal features in the Taurus-Zagros foothills, the northern Levant, and the southern Levant between ca. 80 and 50 kya (and possibly earlier in marine isotope stage 5, ca. 130–80 kya) indicates that a trend of population expansion from Europe to the Near East interrupted the incipient spread of AMH populations out of Africa (Bar-Yosef 1994). Notably, skeletal specimens generally described as Neandertal from the southern Levant also show some features of the parietal or mastoid regions more commonly expressed in AMH (Kramer et al. 2001). Recent comprehensive reconstruction of ancient DNA extracted from European Neandertal bones indicates that all living non-Africans have inherited roughly 1–4% of their DNA from Neandertals – with most or all of the remainder from early AMH ancestors. The southern Levant – as perhaps the most important Near Eastern winter refugium zone, especially well linked to semiarid zone green corridors and oases – is the most obvious candidate area for Neandertal-AMH population mixture in the initial portion of the Upper Pleistocene. Yet, this only intensifies the debate over tempo and mode. Are we observing competition between biologically distinct populations, with limited hybridization? Or are we seeing a regional, shifting population balance – perhaps due to climate change or even cultural-technological innovation – in anatomical or life-history features favored by natural selection?
It should not be surprising that the (apparently predominantly anatomically) Neandertal societies who occupied the Near East in the mid-Upper Pleistocene interval, ca. 80–50 kya, appear to have been at least as socially complex and ecologically adaptive as the earlier AMH communities, especially when it came to mobile hunting and gathering in relatively marginal ecological zones, including both semiarid and higher-elevation habitats (Henry 2003). Given the behavioral similarities between AMH and Neandertal hunter-gatherer societies in the earlier Upper Pleistocene of the Near East, it becomes even that much more challenging to clarify the systemic causes for the observed, long-term geographic shifts in anatomical variation.
The Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition, Disappearance of Neandertals, and Eurasian Spread of Anatomically Modern Humans
The decisive expansion of Upper Paleolithic technology – significantly associated with modern human anatomy – in the later Upper Pleistocene (ca. 50–20 kya) marks the disappearance of the Neandertal anatomical pattern in the Near East (and the rest of western Eurasia). In fact, the spread of Upper Paleolithic technology and modern human anatomical features had global biocultural ripple effects. The expansion of early Upper Paleolithic populations across Eurasia strongly contributed to the predominantly sub-Saharan African pattern of genetic variation seen in all living humans. That is to say, the bulk of extant non-African neutral genetic variation is a subset of variation found in living sub-Saharan African populations (Mallick et al. 2016). During the Upper Paleolithic, major innovations involving refined fiber working, tailored clothing and rigid footwear, compound tool production (with replaceable flint tool or point inserts), projectile hunting weaponry, and body and clothing decoration become efficiently produced and widely employed for the first time outside of sub-Saharan Africa. While it is likely that Eurasian adoption(s) were sometimes the result of independent invention, it is at least as likely that the sociodemographic and ecological conditions favoring adoption of these key technological innovations developed later outside of Africa. These innovations facilitated more sustainable or successful long-term hunter-gatherer occupation of highly marginal Eurasian zones, including higher-altitude or higher-latitude areas with very long winters or very little rainfall, including interior Arabia and Mongolia. The development of Upper Paleolithic Eurasian societies – and the longer-range exchange networks that often shaped them – unfolded slowly, over a ca. 30,000-year period.
Upper Paleolithic emergence, with AMH re-expansion out of Africa, appears to have begun in the Near East before spreading into Eurasia. More specifically, available radiocarbon dating evidence indicates that the Upper Paleolithic emerged first in the Levant – and, quite likely, was localized in the southern Levant, between 50 and 45 kya (Alex et al. 2017). Key late Middle Paleolithic and early Upper Paleolithic sites in the Near East are shown in Fig. 5. Between 45 and 40 kya, aspects of Upper Paleolithic material culture spread or were independently adopted across southeastern, central, and much of Western Europe (Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 2010; Kuhn and Zwyns 2014).
The very earliest Near Eastern Upper Paleolithic is archaeologically recognizable by specific changes in lithic technology. In fact, aside from shifts in blank production, flake-use, and retouched-tool production practices, the earliest Upper Paleolithic layers do not exhibit evidence for residential and mobile foraging behavior patterns that are dramatically – or at least, clearly archaeologically – different from those evidenced from underlying final Middle Paleolithic deposits. Moreover, artifacts and features that have been proposed as part of an Upper Paleolithic behavioral “revolution” are actually rare or absent in earliest Upper Paleolithic Near Eastern sites. These include decorative beads and pendants, bone tools and points, and formal burials, all of which gradually increase frequency after 45 kya, only later becoming substantially more common during the Epipaleolithic period, ca. <20 kya. The early Upper Paleolithic, at first, involves adopting new patterns or combinations of lithic technologies for mobile foraging and campsite tasks.
For the most part, the earliest Upper Paleolithic assemblages – that is, those dated to ca. 50–40 kya – are from sites in the Levant (see Fig. 5). They usually conform to one of two technological patterns, the Early Ahmarian and the Initial Upper Paleolithic. The Early Ahmarian technocomplex features prismatic blade and bladelet production, often on single-platform narrow- or broad-fronted cores, along with el-Wad points. According to the most recent, careful work on pretreating wood charcoal samples and measuring their 14C levels, the oldest Early Ahmarian assemblages are from Kebara and Manot caves, near the Mediterranean coast in northern Israel; these occupations likely date to ca. 47–45 kya (Alex et al. 2017). The lithic assemblage from Mughr el-Hamamah includes Early Ahmarian prismatic blade(let) production technology and may be as old as 45 kya. The Initial Upper Paleolithic (IUP; often referred to as the Emiran in the southern Levant) involves a core-reduction strategy combining prismatic blade production on the lateral portions of the core, with the main prepared-core convexity utilized for Levallois elongated point production. Interestingly, at most sites with IUP assemblages, there are also stratigraphically younger Early Ahmarian deposits. However, the reverse sequence has not been documented. Currently, it appears that Early Ahmarian technologies were adopted immediately following the late Middle Paleolithic in Mediterranean vegetation zones in the southern Levant. In surrounding areas – including the Negev, southern Jordanian highlands, the mountainous Mediterranean coast from Lebanon to Turkey, and northern Syria – IUP technologies were first utilized, only subsequently giving way to Early Ahmarian ones. The oldest dated Upper Paleolithic assemblages from the Taurus-Zagros foothills are assigned to the Baradostian technocomplex; they appear to be somewhat younger in age (ca. 40–35 kya), exhibiting retouched blade and bladelet products similar to those from Early Ahmarian assemblages in the Levant. As a cautionary note, chronological details in different parts of the Near East remain uncertain. Across the wider early Upper Paleolithic timeframe 50–30 kya, it may still be technically challenging to sample, pretreat, and date biogenic materials suitable for radiocarbon dating. This is especially the case when materials are poorly preserved or from old excavations with poorer control over depositional context. Thus, an important focus for future work is clarifying geographic variation within the Near East over the chronology of early Upper Paleolithic technological change in environmental and biocultural context.
Explaining the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition: A Socio-Technological Hypothesis
Indeed, elucidating how and why socio-technological practices changed in this critical interval can clarify why anatomically modern humans largely replaced Neandertals across western Eurasia between ca. 50 and 30 kya. Kuhn and Stiner (2006) have presented theoretical arguments and tentative evidence to support a key inference. The elongated blanks, burins, end scrapers, and retouched blades that mark the earliest Upper Paleolithic assemblages in the Near East were part of an otherwise hidden – but profound – shift in social organization. The production of smaller flint tools and projectile points that were likely hafted – and often used for working hide, wood, or bone – likely marks an increased labor investment in technological production to support hunting, gathering, and food processing. Thorough ethnographic comparison of hunter-gatherer social organization indicates that high labor investment in technological production tasks often corresponds to effective division of labor, usually along adult gender lines. Thus, Kuhn and Stiner identify a hallmark biocultural evolutionary development in the early Upper Paleolithic: the establishment of more stable social networks, constituted by more predictable co-residence practices and cooperative organization of labor.
It is important to note that the development of greater culturally structured division of task labor may have occurred substantially earlier in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In any case, the shifts occurring in the earliest Upper Paleolithic in the Near East appear to have had long-term consequences. The social practices that shaped and reinforced division of labor would have been set within mobile camps, during moves between campsites, on raw material provisioning trips, and on foraging trips. Near Eastern Upper Paleolithic sites – when compared to deposits from earlier periods – appear to vary along a substantially greater spectrum of ephemeral, task-specific camps and larger, repeatedly occupied mobile base camps. Occupation of higher-elevation, semiarid, and arid zones gradually became more successful, complex, and resilient. By the onset of the Epipaleolithic (ca. 20 kya), a persistent social boundary in lithic style had crystallized between the Mediterranean zone and adjacent semiarid zones in the southern Levant (Stutz and Estabrook 2004). At the same time, the early Epipaleolithic record around the Azraq Basin, Jordan, indicates that this boundary was actively, dynamically negotiated (Richter et al. 2011). Early and middle Epipaleolithic (ca. 20–15 kya) basecamp sites that were repeatedly reoccupied exhibit some durable stone-foundation architectural structures and burials, especially in the southern Levantine Mediterranean zone.
Anatomically Modern Human (Re)Expansion in the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition
Kuhn and Stiner’s division-of-labor model is compelling because of its broad biocultural explanatory reach, although much work remains to evaluate its predictions in greater detail. Researchers have also long sought to trace the population-biological dimensions of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition, as it roughly coincides with a key episode of anatomically modern human expansion out of Africa or southern Arabia. Levantine lithic assemblages with IUP core-reduction technology also variably incorporate artifacts – such as Nubian cores, chamfered pieces, Emireh points, and Umm el-Tlel points – that are made with seemingly arbitrary, stylistic preparation or final-shaping removals. As its name suggests, the Nubian core-reduction approach to producing convergent flakes is a Middle Stone Age African phenomenon. However, Nubian cores are known from Middle Paleolithic sites in the Arabian Peninsula and Negev Desert. Nubian cores are notably part of the lithic assemblage from Boker Tachtit Level 1, an IUP site in the Negev Desert (see Fig. 5). The Nubian core pattern – and its formal similarity to Near Eastern IUP core reduction – supports the tantalizing possibility that some earliest Upper Paleolithic technologies in the Near East were influenced by social interaction and demographic expansion from Africa (Goder-Goldberger et al. 2016). However, Early Ahmarian technology appears to be a local southern Levantine development, attributes of which subsequently spread – likely through a combination of demographic growth, dispersal, and social interaction – to other parts of western Eurasia. At this point, evidence remains limited that Near Eastern early Upper Paleolithic material culture was directly influenced by demographically expanding anatomically modern humans, migrating out of Africa, via the Nile Valley or Bab el-Mandeb.
The Long-Term Emergence of Domestication and Agriculture in the Near East
The transition from the final Paleolithic to the Neolithic is often viewed through the lens of the transition to sedentism, agriculture, and village life, which emerged “full-blown” in the Prepottery Neolithic B period of the Near East (ca. 10.5–8.25 kya). Flannery’s (1969) classic archaeologically focused discussion of long-term Near Eastern sociopolitical change – along with the ecological and economic foundations and consequences of that change – included a key suggestion. He argued that plant domestication and agricultural production, which developed in the early Holocene, unfolded at the end of a long-term economic shift from large wild animal resources to more abundant but smaller animal and plant food packages. Moreover, he pointed to then preliminary evidence that the trend toward “broad-spectrum foraging” began early in the Upper Paleolithic. Although the systemic causes of the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition remain poorly understood, more recent research indicates that the Upper-Final Paleolithic shift toward smaller hunted and gathered food packages may have had incipient southern Levantine origins in the (Neandertal-dominated) late Middle Paleolithic, ca. 65–50 kya (Speth and Clark 2006). Put another way, over roughly the last 60,000 years of Near Eastern prehistory, large hunted game became less and less important as a caloric and nutritional resource. At the same time, smaller animal and plant “resource packages” that are resilient to overharvesting became more central to the human diet. This background to the Near Eastern origins of agriculture is important because it involves what appears to be a continuous long-term trend (see Fig. 7).
How Did Plant and Animal Resource Consumption Change in the Long-Term Transition to Agriculture?
The Upper Paleolithic and early Epipaleolithic use of food resources appears to change subtly and gradually from ca. 40–15 kya, with some fluctuations forced in part by climate change. As for the later Middle Paleolithic, small- and medium-sized ungulates – such as fallow deer, gazelle, wild boar, and wild sheep and goat – comprise the bulk of big game assemblages from across the Near East. Small game tends to be dominated by easy-to-capture terrestrial animals, especially land tortoises (see Fig. 7). However, when measured by species presence alone, small game assemblages are often diverse, including small mammals (often hare), waterfowl, and other game birds. Some riverine, lacustrine, and even marine coastal fish and shellfish are documented in the archaeozoological record. The late Upper Paleolithic site Ohalo II, Israel (ca. 23–22 kya), and the early Epipaleolithic site of Kharaneh IV, Jordan (ca. 19–18 kya), preserve especially rich charred plant food assemblages. Ohalo II provides evidence for a broad spectrum of wild fruit, nut, grain, and tuber resources (Kislev et al. 1992). It is worth noting that recent phytolith extraction and identification research on late Middle Paleolithic deposits in the southern Levant also indicates human (likely Neandertal) exploitation of fruit, nut, and grass (presumably including starchy seed) food resources (Henry 2003). The late Middle Paleolithic phytolith evidence is supported by the rare, exceptionally well-preserved charred botanical sample from the Middle Paleolithic layers of Kebara Cave, revealing that Neandertal foragers regularly gathered wild pulses, among other food plants. These emerging – albeit still limited – results on Upper Pleistocene Near Eastern plant food exploitation may be combined with archaeozoological research to suggest that the long-term shift toward smaller-package-sized food resources initially developed continuously and slowly, probably across the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition.
Recent research on the Epipaleolithic in Jordan has been important for shedding light on how climatic and ecological gradients (see Fig. 1) may have shaped long-term biocultural change in the Near Eastern transition to agriculture. It appears that, as overall population densities grew to a critical threshold, hunter-gatherer groups more regularly sustained exploitation of wetland patches, which dotted the steppic or semiarid eastern flank of the southern Levant. In Eastern Jordan, the number and maximum size of archaeological sites jump substantially from the late Upper Paleolithic to the early Epipaleolithic. This transition unfolds during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), ca. 23–19 kya. This was a period of cold, dry climate globally. In the Near East, the cooler prevailing temperatures depressed annual precipitation rates, but they also reduced evaporation. The result was patchy change in water availability and vegetation regimes. In the southern Levant, the Lake Lisan that filled the Jordan Valley shrank progressively during the LGM. However, wetlands and upland lakes continued to dot the Transjordanian highlands and portions of Eastern Jordan. These were areas that – due to their higher elevation and relatively lower rainfall – supported lower annual biomass production than much of the western portion of the southern Levant. Thus, they would have had lower, spatially patchier amounts of edible plant and animal foods for human foragers. Still, predictable lacustrine and wetland zones – such as the ancient Lake Hasa and the wider Azraq region – were more intensely exploited by mobile foragers. At least occasionally, hunter-gatherers may have visited or remained in these areas throughout the year, especially the rich Azraq Basin (Richter et al. 2013). Substantial variation in bladelet and point manufacture and form suggests that material culture style was important in negotiating social relationship networks and boundaries. However, the very long-term trend in animal prey overexploitation – seen in the richer Galilee, Mt. Carmel, and Jordan Valley zones – does not develop around the ancient Lake Hasa or Azraq Basin, even into the early Holocene (Martin et al. 2016; Munro et al. 2016; Stutz et al. 2009). It is likely that the costs – in terms of foraging risks and residential-move distances – limited human ecological impact on the eastern portion of the Levant. At the same time, the Mediterranean vegetation zone and rich Jordan Valley remained a hunting-and-gathering refugium. Within this area, dotted by multiple biodiversity hotspots, human population densities gradually rose over millennial timescales. The higher rates of social interaction in co-residential, foraging, mobility, and ritual-gathering contexts had to be negotiated, influencing biocultural change in ways that have yet to be fully understood. An interesting focus for future research is how interaction between ecologically more productive lower-elevation refugia – including portions of the southern Levant and the Taurus-Zagros foothills – and patchier wetland oases in steppic and semiarid zones dynamically shaped both population growth within the Near East and demographic expansion into surrounding areas.
Paleobotanical remains are generally poorly preserved in Early Natufian sites. It is unclear if there was an equally dramatic shift in the composition of the Early Natufian plant food spectrum. Preservation of charred botanical remains has proven poor at southern Levantine Early Natufian sites, but phytolith analysis suggests that forest resources, such as acorns, were gathered and utilized (Rosen and Rivera-Collazo 2012). Nutritional and caloric arguments would predict that rich, seasonally available foods that could be mass-collected and stored would be favored. Such resources in the final Pleistocene of the southern Levant would notably include acorns, wild pulses, wheat, and barley. The focus on fast-reproducing, fast-escaping small game – now very well documented by Stiner and Munro’s (2002) pioneering analyses – provides an economic context that would also be congruent with mass collection of ecologically abundant starchy, fatty, or protein-rich plant foods. Both fast-reproducing small game and rich plant foods require high up-front technological investment for humans to harvest, transport, and process them sufficiently effectively. As the work by Stiner and Munro indicates, sessile small game would likely have been captured during Early Natufian times with complicated technological aids. These would include traps (which would not have to be constantly monitored), bow and arrow or harpoon technologies, and tracking or hunting dogs. All of these innovations would have substantially increased post-encounter return rates. If well curated, the initial investment in such technology would have paid off over weeks, months, or years of use. Perhaps most importantly, such small game species would be relatively undisturbed by human presence; their high reproductive rates could offset intensive human predation. Thus, even as Early Natufian hunter-gatherers ate more hare, partridge, waterfowl, fish, and other sessile animals, encounter rates would unlikely have been depressed. It is important to note that the technological investment in sickles, baskets, mortars and pestles, and – possibly – storage pits for high-quality seed, nut, and lentil exploitation involves a conspicuously similar up-front cost and delayed returns, when compared to intensive sessile small game hunting.
Yet, there are two potential differences with seed, lentil, and nut exploitation. First, efficient harvesting and processing may be enhanced, not only by technology but also by social organization. Economies of scale, leadership, and task-specific division of labor can improve harvest rates, plant regeneration rates, and the effectiveness of storage and food processing. Whereas the adoption of small game hunting technology would mainly involve intensification of existing Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer social relations, the biological and physical properties of especially rich seed and nut resources can focus common interests and favor cultural transformation toward a larger scale of work organization, shaping seasonal ritualized aggregations or feasts. Moreover, an economy of scale supported by more complex organization could enhance plant habitat and dispersal, creating further ecological conditions for increasing caloric and nutritional return rates. Second, the biological and physical properties of starchy or fatty plant foods can – with efficient technology and organization of grinding and cooking – be used to produce relatively energy-rich gruels or porridges that can significantly augment lactation and reduce weaning ages, thereby increasing overall fertility rates in the community.
Over a period of generations, then, systemic change would most likely involve dynamic feedbacks among plant resource growth and patch distribution; technology supporting and facilitating harvesting, food processing, and storage; ritualization, genres of discourse, identities, built environments, cultural landscapes and temporalities, and cosmological idealization of a social order; practical social organization of plant food exploitation, along with social negotiation over task group mobilization, especially in the face of resource scheduling conflicts and the need to reach consensus about opportunity costs; practices of exchange, storage, and consumption; population fertility, mortality, health, and activity patterns; and migration, social boundary negotiation, and intermarriage practices.
It is not until the succeeding Late Natufian archaeological culture (ca. 13–12 kya) that we see evidence for a further, clear increase in the economic importance of rich, starchy plant foods. The site of Tell Abu Hureyra in the northern Levant shows that, for one thing, the Late Natufian archaeological culture – which stratigraphically succeeds the Early Natufian at several sites in the southern Levant – involved intense gathering and processing of wild plant foods in the Middle Euphrates valley. Late Natufian sites are geographically widespread, also found in the Eastern Jordanian Black Desert, the Negev Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula (see Fig. 8). Analysis of the charred macrobotanical remains from Abu Hureyra shows that, at the very beginning of the Late Natufian archaeological culture (Abu Hureyra 1, Phase 1), a year-round basecamp settlement was supported by a starchy plant-food foraging “basket” strongly dominated by wild wheat and rye. The technology and organization of seed resource exploitation practiced by the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra appear to have been resilient to rapid-onset climate change, which occurred during the cold and dry Younger Dryas episode (12.9–11.7 kya). Gordon Hillman (reporting in Moore et al. 2000) documents a Younger Dryas-associated shift toward a much broader spectrum of wild seeds, nuts, and fruits, available from a wider diversity of habitat zones, during the Abu Hureyra Phase 2 and 3 occupations. Similar Younger Dryas patterns of broad-spectrum seed and lentil exploitation have been documented at other late Epipaleolithic sites in the northern Levant and eastern Anatolia. These include Mureybet and Hallan Çemi. In the southern Levant, although Late Natufian sites also lack good macrobotanical preservation, evidence for the increasing dietary importance of starchy seed resources comes mainly from phytolith evidence (Rosen and Rivera-Collazo 2012). It also comes from an indirect – but compelling – source. The Early-Late Natufian transition across the Levant, ca. 13 kya, is archaeologically marked, in part, by a shift from deep groundstone mortars in the Early Natufian to flat, more portable groundstone slabs in the Late Natufian phase. Dubreuil’s (2004) microwear analysis comparing Early Natufian deep mortars with Late Natufian grinding slabs indicates that the former were used to crush and grind multiple food and pigment resources, whereas the latter functioned primarily to process starchy grains. It is notable that small sessile game comprises a smaller proportion of the animal bones from most Late Natufian sites, when compared to the EN pattern of small-sessile-game dominance. At the same time, Late Natufian big game assemblages remain overwhelmingly defined by gazelle remains (i.e., the smallest body-size category of big game available in regional ecosystems), and 35–40% of those gazelle bones are represented by even smaller, pre-reproductive subadult animals (Stutz et al. 2009). Gazelle populations under predation by humans appear to have been intensively targeted throughout the Early and Late Natufian cultural phases, but small fast game became less economically important in the Late Natufian. While recovery and analysis of plant food remains must be an important focus for future Epipaleolithic research in the Near East, there is a strong circumstantial case that starchy seeds – including wild precursors to many domesticated grains and pulses – supplied an increasing proportion of the per capita calories consumed in Late Natufian societies.
The Early and Late Natufian archaeological cultures provide evidence that wild plant resources increased – in successive steps over more than three millennia – in nutritional, energetic, and cultural importance for Near Eastern human populations. Experimental harvesting work suggests that the Late Natufian cultural phase likely involved small-scale predomestication cultivation activities. The succeeding Prepottery Neolithic A period (ca. 12.0 kya – 10.5 kya) has yielded indications that – at the very end of the Younger Dryas or the beginning of the Holocene – domesticated grains and lentils began to be planted, harvested, and consumed. However, this early agricultural production was mixed with a broad spectrum of gathered seeds, nuts, fruits, and lentils (Asouti and Fuller 2013; Willcox 2007). Wild big and small game continued to be hunted. During the Prepottery Neolithic B period (ca. 10.5–8.2 kya), wheat agriculture became the dominant plant-food-producing technology across the Near East, and sheep and goat domestication also spread quickly throughout the entire region. It was during the PPNB period – with the settlement of villages organized in uncut stone or mudbrick house blocks – that the “Neolithic Revolution” in the Near East took hold, sending out population and cultural ripple effects across much of Eurasia and into Africa.
Sociocultural and Environmental Implications of the Long-Term Transition to Agriculture
The previous section presented an overview of how the omnivorous food resource base changed over a long but critical timeframe in Near Eastern prehistory – from the early Upper Paleolithic to the Prepottery Neolithic B period (ca. 50 kya – 8.2 kya). Sherratt (2007) has directly compared the agricultural technology underlying the shift to a carbohydrate-intensive plant-based diet to modern industrialization’s extraction, transportation, and communication technologies – the adoption and development of which drove and were in turn sustained by fossil fuel extraction. The so-called Neolithic Revolution – which, to be sure, unfolded gradually over many generations – came to impact dramatically how energy flowed between ecosystems and the human populations that recurrently engineered and impacted them. The early adoption of agriculture, domestication, and more widespread food storage in the PPNB period substantially raised local ecological carrying capacities, sustaining higher annual rates of energy and nutrient extraction for human groups. Yet, agriculture also created the complex potential for systemic environmental, demographic, and cultural disruption and transition, over time and at multiple geographic scales.
The Near East’s later Upper Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeological record traces a very gradual long-term average decline in the nutritional and energetic importance of big game, followed by a series of stepwise increases in the importance of energy-rich plant foods. This transition in the human omnivorous relationship to surrounding food webs tilted toward plant resources across the Early Natufian, Late Natufian, Prepottery Neolithic A, and Prepottery Neolithic B phases. Archaeological evidence also provides information about associated behavioral changes, involving raw material provisioning; tool production and use; hunting, gathering, food processing, and consumption; combustion technology for cooking, warmth, and other activities; residential mobility and social organization; and, for later time periods, animal domestication and the building, use, maintenance, and abandonment of complicated architectural structures – including monumental features – along with mortuary and other community rituals, social identity production, social boundary maintenance, and exchange and long-distance social networks (Asouti and Fuller 2013).
It is with Early Natufian emergence that we observe a departure from the Upper Paleolithic and earlier Epipaleolithic trend of long-term gradual behavioral change. The Early Natufian archaeological culture (ca. 15–13 kya) is associated not only with a seemingly quantum shift in food economy; it also involved the settlement of large (ca. 1000–2000 m2), likely continuously occupied sedentary hamlets, with durable subcircular architectural structures and mortuary features located under, inside of, and between structures. The behavioral changes surrounding Early Natufian foraging and food consumption appear to have involved mainly intensification of earlier Epipaleolithic and Upper Paleolithic labor and social relationship patterns. In contrast, the Early Natufian shift in settlement – with greater social and physical investment in spatially dense, long-lasting shelters, food preparation areas, and communal spaces that were often marked by mortuary features – would have integrally involved a reconfiguration of social relationships, cultural mechanisms for resolving conflicts, and cultural ideas and experiences of social time, landscape, and memory.
Sedentary settlement in the Early Natufian archaeological culture was a response – in no small part, initially, at least – to long-term predation pressure on big game (Stutz et al. 2009). Larger prey – such as gazelle, wild goat, or fallow deer – appear to have become overhunted, demographically depressed, and more costly to search for. This would have been the result of long-term positive feedback between hunting success and population growth, unfolding slowly, at centennial or millennial timescales. Consequently, the sedentary foraging of smaller, easy-to-find, but costly-to-process plant and small game foods became more economical. The alternative would have involved paying the metabolic, social, and foraging opportunity cost of increasing the length and frequency of moves between mobile camps. The social and cultural implications of sedentary settlement, though, were likely transformative. Early Natufian sedentism may have been sustained by intensive hunting and gathering, but Early Natufian cultural structures for managing social life – within and between families, camps, and perhaps descent groups – may have been integral to negotiating the changing system of social relationships in the subsequent Late Natufian (ca. 13–12 kya) food economy, as starchy seeds, nuts, and lentils took on increasing energetic and nutritional importance.
Discussion and Conclusions: From Intercontinental Connections to Globalization
In this essay it is suggested that a geographically grounded approach – involving a consideration of biocultural dynamics at multiple spatial scales – gives a more thorough appreciation of the systemic causes and implications of long-term human population growth, range expansion, and the emergence of sociocultural complexity. This theoretical foundation helps us to clarify why major debates about the Near East’s role in human prehistory still deal with classic evolutionary questions of tempo and mode. Have the interactions among genetic variation, ecological setting, demography, and culture emerged gradually throughout the Pleistocene? Alternatively, has it been mainly shaped by punctuated evolution – involving speciation, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, range expansion, and competitive exclusion within and outside of Africa? Yet, the Near East is all the more important when one further considers the later prehistoric emergence of Upper Paleolithic social networks, Epipaleolithic sedentary settlements, and Neolithic animal and plant domestication and village life. This latter development moves theoretical attention away from macroevolutionary tempo and mode toward complex biocultural dynamics within anatomically modern Homo sapiens.
What were the systemic interactions among social networks, cultural symbolic structures (including landscape and the anthropogenic built environment), human agency, human demography, and the demography and (perhaps anthropogenically altered) habitat of plant and animal food resources?
How did behavioral, symbolic, and food-web changes impact human genetic variation – by influencing patterns of random and culturally structured drift, gene flow, and natural selection?
How did hemispheric or global climate change affect the timing and dynamics of major biocultural trends, such as the initial shift to sedentary settlement or the widespread adoption of grain agriculture?
How did social interactions, migration, and interbreeding between populations in adjacent phytogeographic zones and subregions within the highly environmentally diverse Near East shape the long-term late Pleistocene-early Holocene biocultural change – especially as technological developments of textile and basketry production, tailored clothing, durable shelter, trapping and hunting projectiles, dog domestication, food storage, and agriculture dramatically altered food calorie production, energy balance, and stress across the entire region?
Clearly, these critical questions deal with intricate complex systems dynamics. And so far, research on Near Eastern Neolithic emergence has largely contributed to clarifying the questions themselves. Much inquiry remains to provide satisfying scientific answers.
The Near Eastern transition to agriculture is key for understanding a pivotal biocultural development in very long-term Upper Pleistocene-early Holocene shift from a core-periphery structure to a truly global Holocene pattern of population distribution. The study of Near Eastern prehistory highlights humanity’s shared, predominantly African late Middle and Upper Pleistocene ancestry. It also has the potential to elucidate the intricate prehistoric underpinnings of Holocene developments as varied as prehistoric sociopolitical complexity and inequality, recent processes of gene-culture interaction, language and cultural diversification, and the historical development of world-systems political economy. Amplifying a suggestion made by Bar-Yosef (1998a) – concerning how insights from studying the transition to agriculture could illuminate the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in the Near East – this essay points toward a similar but broader approach. If the systemic and dynamic climatic, ecological, biological, demographic, and socio-symbolic factors involved in the largely endogenous Near Eastern agricultural transition can be clarified, perhaps paleoanthropologists can utilize such insights into biocultural evolution, in order to trace more intricately the human dimensions of earlier, recurrent Pleistocene OAA population expansions into Eurasia – which unfolded via the Near East.
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