Day By Day

Friday, August 03, 2007

Farewell to the Fertile Crescent

It's just a short notice, but the article it describes promises to change nearly everything we think we know about the early emergence of complex societies.

Ever since the early days of archaeology one of the great organizing concepts in the early history of mankind has been the "fertile crescent." This geographic concept has played an important and sometimes a determinative role in explanations of the "rise of civilization," "the urban revolution," "the agricultural revolution" and other such phenomena.

Originally the term "fertile crescent" was applied to an narrow band of cultures stretching from Mesopotamia in the east, through the Levant and down into Egypt.

But as later research began to reveal the existence of early complex cultures lying outside that zone the fertile crescent began to change. Egypt was dropped out and new areas encompassing parts of Anatolia, Iran, Armenia and elsewhere were added. The new fertile crescent looks a bit like this:

Now comes this notice from the American Association for the Advancement of Science of a forthcoming article that will vastly expand the range of early complex cultural development.

A radically expanded view of the origin of civilization, extending far beyond Mesopotamia, is reported by journalist Andrew Lawler in the 3 August issue of Science.

Mesopotamia is widely believed to be the cradle of civilization, but a growing body of evidence suggests that in addition to Mesopotamia, many civilized urban areas existed at the same time – about 5,000 years ago – in an arc that extended from Mesopotamia east for thousands of kilometers across to the areas of modern India and Pakistan, according to Lawler.

“While Mesopotamia is still the cradle of civilization in the sense that urban evolution began there,” Lawler said, “we now know that the area between Mesopotamia and India spawned a host of cities and cultures between 3000 B.C.E. and 2000 B.C.E.”


Archaeologists shared findings from dozens of urban centers of approximately the same age that existed between Mesopotamia and the Indus River valley in modern day India and Pakistan. The researchers are just starting to sketch out this new landscape, but it’s becoming clear that these centers traded goods and could have shared technology and architecture. Recovered artifacts such as beads, shells, vessels, seals and game boards show that a network linked these civilizations.

Researchers have also found hints, such as similar ceremonial platforms, that these cultures interacted and even learned from one another. A new excavation near Jiroft in southeastern Iran, for example, has unearthed tablets with an unknown writing system. This controversial find highlights the complexity of the cultures in an area long considered a backwater, Lawler explained.

These urban centers are away from the river valleys that archaeologists have traditionally focused on....

Read the whole thing here.

Perhaps in the light of recent research we should simply abandon the whole concept of a "fertile crescent". Certainly a whole slew of theories as to why complex societies rose in West Asia will have to be junked. And there is probably more on the horizon. Scholars are now beginning to turn their attention to the ancient cultures of Central Asia and there is a lot of very interesting stuff there that will have to be assimilated into any future explanation of the rise of "civilization" in Eurasia. [For a bibliography of recent publications on Central Asian archaeology see here]

It's fun to watch scientific consensuses crumble and come crashing down -- sorta like watching a Michael Bay movie.

[The picture at the top of this post is of a figurine from Mehrgahr, an early agricultural settlement, dating from about 7,000 BC, in Baluchistan. This site is contemporary with early agricultural communities in the fertile crescent.]