Wednesday, January 2, 2013

History Repeating

I see on BBC News today that the crisis in Syria has killed more than 60,000 people. Conflict in this area goes back a long, long way:
Dr Frahm used artifacts unearthed from the archaeological site of Tell Mozan, known as Urkesh in antiquity, to trace what happened to trade and social networks when Bronze-Age Syrian cities were abandoned in the wake of a regional government collapse and increasing drought due to climate shifts.

"Unfortunately," explained Dr Frahm, "the situation four thousand years ago has striking similarities to today. Much like the fall of the Akkadian Empire, a governmental collapse is a real possibility in Syria after nearly two years of fighting. Some archaeologists and historians contend that the Akkadian Empire was brought down by militarism and that violence ended its central economic role in the region.

"Additionally, farming in north-eastern Syria today relies principally on rainfall rather than irrigation, just as in the Bronze Age, and climate change has already stressed farming there. But it isn't just climate change that is the problem. Farming, rather than herding, has been encouraged at unsustainable levels by the state through land-use policies, and as occurred during urbanisation four millennia ago, populations have dramatically increased in the area."

Dr Frahm explained the motivation behind the research: "This time of transition in Mesopotamia has received great attention for the concurrence of aridification, de-urbanisation, and the decline of the Akkadian Empire about 4,200 years ago. However, our current understanding of this 'crisis' has been almost exclusively shaped by ceramic styles, estimated sizes of archaeological sites, and evidence of changing farming practices. Trade and the associated social networks have been largely neglected in prior studies about this time, and we decided obsidian was an ideal way to investigate them."

Obsidian, naturally occurring volcanic glass, is smooth, hard, and far sharper than a surgical scalpel when fractured, making it a highly desired raw material for crafting stone tools for most of human history. In fact, obsidian tools continued to be used throughout the ancient Middle East for millennia beyond the introduction of metals, and obsidian blades are still used today as scalpels in specialised medical procedures.

"Our discovery that obsidian in Urkesh came from six different volcanoes before the crisis, whereas they normally came from just two or three at surrounding sites, implies that Urkesh was an unusually cosmopolitan city with diverse visitors, or visitors with diverse itineraries. During the crisis, however, obsidian only came from two nearby sources, suggesting that certain trade or social networks collapsed. It was two or three centuries before diverse obsidian appeared again at this city, and even then, it came from different quarries, signalling the impact the crisis had on trade and mobility throughout the wider region.

"One compelling interpretation of our findings is that the regional government of the Akkadian Empire shaped Urkesh's local economy. This city might have specialised its economy in response to demand from the Akkadians for certain commodities, such as metals from the nearby mountains. With climate shifts and the end of the empire, Urkesh's inhabitants might have had to refocus their economy on local production and consumption, covering their own needs rather than engaging in specialised long-distance trade.

"By drawing these parallels to the current situation in Syria, we are not making light of it," explains Dr Frahm. "Quite the opposite. The situation in Syria is heartbreaking, horrifying even when I see the images from Syria via social media. As an archaeologist, there is nothing that I can do to help the situation right now. But those of us who study people and the past are in a unique position to consider what could happen after the immediate crisis ends. What happens to cities when a state falls? How do the residents sustain themselves if that infrastructure collapses? Will they move to another area? Droughts are known to increase wars. As climate change increases, could fighting start again over scarce water resources? This is the type of contribution that archaeology can make towards improving the future."
Crisis in Syria Has Mesopotamian Precedent, Experts Say (Science Daily)

And while we're on the subject, sustainable agriculture has been an oxymoron for a long time. It wasn't sustainable even in the Bronze Age:
Mónica Aguilera, an engineer from the Vegetable Physiology Unit at the University of Barcelona (UB) and co-author of the study, told SINC that the natural levels of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes were measured in order to estimate the yield and nutritional status of the ancient crops. “The size of the grain and levels of the carbon 13 (13C) isotopes allowed us to estimate yield, while the nutritional status of the crop was analysed by measuring levels of the nitrogen 15 (15N) isotopes,” the researcher explained.

Figures revealed by the study show a reduction of around 35% in the yield of wheat crops and 30% in barley between the years 4000 and 2500 BCE (end of the Bronze Age). The average weight of the grains of these cereals also fell by 10 miligrammes (33%) and 12 mg (38%) respectively. The research also revealed a 33% reduction in the nitrogen content of the wheat grains and 56% in barley.

“These figures suggest that the agricultural system of the region in the south east of the peninsula became unsustainable over time, and that this was not due to a lack of water,” says Aguilera. The scientists have looked into the water available to the cereals by the end of their cultivation period, based upon the carbon isotope component, and have obtained approximately constant values (around 120 mm) for the entire period studied, which makes it seem the decline in yield had no apparent relation to drought events. These estimates, however, contrast with current rain measurements in the area (around 60 mm in April and May).

The researchers have also observed a close relationship between the seasonal variations of the cereals and those of weeds. Barley was most abundant at the same time as wasteland weeds (common in uncultivated land and rubbish tips, such as nettles, mallow, celery, goosefoot and clover), while wheat flourished at the same time as weeds more characteristic of land cultivated with cereals (such as poppies, plantains, knotweeds and various grassy plants).

“This suggests that there was a separate system of cultivation for the two cereals: barley was possibly relegated to marginal areas, while the potentially more fertile fields were reserved for wheat, which was more abundant and very probably the principal crop for human consumption in the primitive agricultural systems of the south east of the peninsula,” said Aguilera.

The results of the study show a link between the decline in the status of the crops and a progressive loss in soil fertility, and reinforce the hypothesis that the first agricultural activities in the Mediterranean area had a negative impact on ecological and environmental conditions there.
Iberian Peninsula’s Earliest Agricultural Systems Were Unsustainable (Science Daily)

But sometimes people adapted better:
Wossink studied how the farmers and nomads in northern Mesopotamia -- currently the border area between Turkey, Syria and Iraq -- responded to the changes in climate that took place between 3000 and 1600 BC. He expected to find considerable evidence of competition: as food and water became scarcer the natural result could well be conflict. He discovered, however, that the farmers developed much closer bonds with the semi-nomadic cattle farmers.

The archaeologist analysed previous finds from the area as well as ancient texts. His research shows the importance of not seeing climate as the only cause: human responses in particular play a major role. Wossink studied three regions and only one of these demonstrated traces of competition between settlements. However, the completion in this area was probably due to the strong population growth that was taking place there.

The farmers in northern Mesopotamia chose not to compete with one another, but to adapt to the circumstances. Wossink shows that the arrival of the Amorites, who had until that time been regarded as (semi-)nomadic, was not simply a process of infiltration. The rise in the Amorites should be seen as the spread of an identity that brought crop farmers and cattle farmers together. By adopting the Amoritic identity, the farmers gained access to a large trading network that was necessary to survive the period of drought.
Climate Change Does Not Always Lead to Conflict (Science Daily)

And can we green the desert?
In ancient Roman times A.D., Palmyra was the most important point along the trade route linking the east and west, reaching a population of 100 000 inhabitants. But its history has always been shrouded in mystery: What was a city that size doing in the middle of the desert? How could so many people live in such an inhospitable place nearly 2 000 years ago? Where did their food come from? And why would such an important trade route pass directly through the desert?

Professor Meyer and his colleagues came to realise that what they were studying was not a desert, but rather an arid steppe, with underground grass roots that keep rain from sinking into the soil. Rainwater collects in intermittent creeks and rivers called wadi by the Arabs.

The archaeologists gathered evidence that residents of ancient Palmyra and the nearby villages collected the rainwater using dams and cisterns. This gave the surrounding villages water for crops and enabled them to provide the city with food; the collection system ensured a stable supply of agricultural products and averted catastrophe during droughts. Local farmers also cooperated with Bedouin tribes, who drove their flocks of sheep and goats into the area to graze during the hot season, fertilising the farmers' fields in the process.

Palmyra's location also had a political foundation. Important east-west trade routes, including along the Euphrates River to the north, were not under the control of the Romans to the west or the Persians to the east. Local lords and chieftains demanded high fees for passage. This practice of extortion translated into a tremendous opportunity for the Palmyrians; they joined forces with the Bedouins to provide security, beasts of burden and guides through the desert. "Tradesmen from Palmyra made the most of the city's unique location to build up a comprehensive trade network," says the professor. "This explains much of the city's prosperity."

The solution to the mystery of Palmyra can also teach us something today. As the world seeks arable land to feed its billions, we can learn from the Palmyrians' experience. If they were able to cultivate the desert soil almost 2 000 years ago, surely we can do the same with all the available modern aids and methods "Occasionally an enormous amount of rain falls in the desert," says Professor Meyer. "Anyone can see how green the desert becomes after the rain. The Palmyrians must have realised the potential of this type of land, which covers large areas of our planet."
Why the Vibrant City of Palmyra Was Located in the Middle of What Is Now the Syrian Desert (Science Daily)


  1. On the topic of agriculture and social instability, I wonder how much soil erosion (and the poor agricultural practices that encourage it) played a role in ancient Syria's disturbances. Unsustainable agriculture often results in soil erosion, increased soil saility, and decreased soil nutrients, all of which spell disaster for crop production. Are you familiar with the book DIRT: THE EROSION OF CIVILIZATIONS? It's a fascinating read.

  2. Yes, I read it last year. It is a terrific book and explains a lot about history. I would also recommend Pan's Travail for a history of environmental destruction in the Classical world.

  3. Did you know there is a really cool song with the same title as this entry by Shirley Bassey and the propellerheads called History repeating. I'll be sure to use one of the YouTube videos of it to illustrate a reblogged version of this post.

    Also, I recommend you check out He's taking a close look at how the water and food situation is driving the ongoing crisis in Syria as well as creating the potential for instability all throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.


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