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The Interaction between People and Environment at the Early


village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates
Andrew M.T. Moore

Citer ce document / Cite this document :

Moore Andrew M.T. The Interaction between People and Environment at the Early village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates. In:
Espace naturel, espace habité en Syrie du Nord (10e - 2e millénaires av. J.-C.) / Natural Space, inhabited Space in Northern
Syria (10th - 2nd millennium B.C.). Actes du colloque tenu à l'Université Laval (Québec) du 5 au 7 mai 1997. Lyon : Maison de
l'Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux, 1998. pp. 131-138. (Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient méditerranéen, 28);

https://www.persee.fr/doc/mom_1274-6525_1998_act_28_1_1105

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Abstract
Climatic change from the late Pleistocene to the early Holocene had massive effects on the
environment worldwide. The early village of Abu Hureyra (c. 11,500 to 7,000 BP) in the Euphrates
Valley was occupied from the end of the Pleistocene into the early Holocene. Thus the way of life of its
inhabitants was significantly influenced by these environmental changes. The warmer, moister climate
of the late glacial provided a rich environment for the hunter-gatherers who established the first village,
Abu Hureyra 1. The onset of the cool, dry conditions of the Younger Dryas disrupted their gathering
activities and obliged them to develop cereal agriculture. The milder, moister climate in the early
Holocene provided favourable conditions for an expansion of this agricultural way of life, and the
substantial growth of the second village there, Abu Hureyra 2. The warm, relatively arid climate that set
in after 8,000 BP contributed to the later shrinkage in the size of the site and its eventual abandonment.

Résumé
Le changement climatique qui survint à la fin du Pleistocène et au début de l'Holocène eut des effets
considérables sur l'environnement mondial. Or, le premier village d'Abu Hureyra (c. de 11 500 à 7 000
BP) dans la vallée de l'Euphrate fut occupé de la fin du Pleistocène au début de l'Holocène. Ainsi, le
mode de vie de ses habitants fut influencé de façon significative par ces changements
environnementaux. Le climat plus chaud et plus humide de la fin de l'ère glaciaire fournit un
environnement favorable aux chasseurs-cueilleurs qui fondèrent le premier village, Abu Hureyra I.
L'assèchement et le refroidissement qui suivirent perturba leurs activités de cueillette et les obligèrent
à développer l'agriculture céréalière. Le climat plus doux et plus humide du début de l'Holocène
procura des conditions propices à l'expansion de la vie agricole et à la croissance substantielle du
second village, Abu Hureyra 2. Enfin, le climat chaud, relativement aride qui s'installa après 8 000 BP
contribua à la réduction de l'étendue du site et son abandon par la suite.
THE INTERACTION BETWEEN PEOPLE
AND ENVIRONMENT AT THE EARLY VILLAGE
OF ABU HUREYRA ON THE EUPHRATES

A.M. T. MOORE

RESUME. - Le changement climatique qui survint à la fin du Pleistocène et au début de l'Holocène eut des effets considérables sur l'environnement
mondial. Or, le premier village d'Abu Hureyra (c. de 1 1 500 à 7 000 BP) dans la vallée de l'Euphrate fut occupé de la fin du Pleistocène au début de
l'Holocène. Ainsi, le mode de vie de ses habitants fut influencé de façon significative par ces changements environnementaux. Le climat plus chaud
et plus humide de la fin de l'ère glaciaire fournit un environnement favorable aux chasseurs-cueilleurs qui fondèrent le premier village, Abu Hureyra
I. L'assèchement et le refroidissement qui suivirent perturba leurs activités de cueillette et les obligèrent à développer l'agriculture céréalière. Le
climat plus doux et plus humide du début de l'Holocène procura des conditions propices à l'expansion de la vie agricole et à la croissance substantielle
du second village, Abu Hureyra 2. Enfin, le climat chaud, relativement aride qui s'installa après 8 000 BP contribua à la réduction de l'étendue du site
et son abandon par la suite.
Mots clés: Abu Hureyra, réchauffement du climat, domestication, agriculture, céréales, gazelle, chèvre et mouton, ancien village.
ABSTRACT. - Climatic change from the late Pleistocene to the early Holocene had massive effects on the environment worldwide. The early village
of Abu Hureyra (c. 11,500 to 7,000 BP) in the Euphrates Valley was occupied from the end of the Pleistocene into the early Holocene. Thus the way
of life of its inhabitants was significantly influenced by these environmental changes. The warmer, moister climate of the late glacial provided a rich
environment for the hunter-gatherers who established the first village, Abu Hureyra 1. The onset of the cool, dry conditions of the Younger Dryas
disrupted their gathering activities and obliged them to develop cereal agriculture. The milder, moister climate in the early Holocene provided
favourable conditions for an expansion of this agricultural way of life, and the substantial growth of the second village there, Abu Hureyra 2. The
warm, relatively arid climate that set in after 8,000 BP contributed to the later shrinkage in the size of the site and its eventual abandonment.
Key-words: Abu Hureyra, Younger Dryas, domestication, agriculture, cereals, gazelle, sheep and goat, early village.

The transition from Pleistocene to Holocene was a on every aspect of the world's climate and environment,
time of massive environmental change worldwide. The was markedly irregular, however. The sharpest
effects were most dramatic in higher latitudes and have interruption in the rise in temperature came c. 11,000 BP in
been well documented there, but they had a significant radiocarbon years with the onset of the Younger Dryas,
impact in lower latitudes also. The sequence of an episode of climatic change whose effects were felt
occupation of Abu Hureyra, an early village on the Euphrates, worldwide. The Younger Dryas was characterised by
spanned the transition from Pleistocene to Holocene. sharply lower temperatures of almost pleniglacial
Accordingly, the environmental changes that occurred severity and a much drier climate in many regions. The
during this period had a profound effect on the way of Younger Dryas lasted about a thousand years until
life of its inhabitants. We have learned that the village 10,000 BP when the climate resumed its warming trend.
was inhabited first by hunters and gatherers who later The change from Younger Dryas to Holocene was rapid,
became farmers. The development of this new way of occurring over perhaps a decade or so, in response to a
life was in part a response to this major episode of sharp adjustment in temperature2.
environmental change. These climatic fluctuations had a significant impact
At the height of the last glaciation 18,000 years ago in Western Asia. The changes in temperature there were
the mean annual temperature was at least 4°C lower than of the same magnitude as in the mid latitudes elsewhere.
at present1. Immense ice sheets formed over the poles The Mediterranean coastline experienced the same drop
and spread over extensive areas of northern Eurasia and and subsequent rise in sea level as the shores of the open
North America, while lesser ice sheets covered mountain oceans. There were also fluctuations in rainfall and in its
chains across the world. So much water was removed incidence through the year that, taken together with the
from the oceans that sea level dropped by over 100 m. variations in temperature, had a marked effect on the
Beginning about 15,000 years ago, the temperature nature and extent of vegetation zones.
began to rise until it reached a post-glacial peak c. 5,000 During the pleniglacial the forests of the mountains
BP. The rise in temperature, with its consequent effects and foothills retreated westward to refuges in the

( 1 ) CROWLEY and NORTH, 1 99 1 (2) SEVERINGHAUS et ai, 1998.


.

TMO28 BCSMS 33 (Québec, 1998)


© Maison de l'Orient Méditerranéen 131 © Canadian Society for Mesopotamia!) Studies
Espace naturel, espace habité en Syrie du Nord (10c-2e millénaires av. J.-C.)

uplands bordering the Mediterranean3. Much of the Dryas, steppe vegetation remained an important
interior of Western Asia consisted of cool, arid steppe, component of the landscape in the Lake Huleh region
an environment that did not favour extensive human throughout the Holocene.
settlement. After 15,000 BP as the temperature rose All these data make it abundantly clear just how
rainfall also increased, especially during the spring and early dynamic the environment was during the late glacial and
summer growing season4. This caused the forest zone to early Holocene, with continuous fluctuations in climate
expand eastward along the mountain chains and around and vegetation zones and abrupt transitions from one
the fringes of the Fertile Crescent. The process was stage to the next. With these observations in mind, let us
abruptly halted during the Younger Dryas when look more closely at the environment of the Middle
conditions became so dry and cool that the forests retreated Euphrates region, and of Abu Hureyra itself. The
westward once more. They resumed their eastward rainfall today has a sharp gradient from west to east (fig. 1 )
march along the mountain chains once milder climatic because much of it derives from the winter westerlies. It
conditions set in after 10,000 BP during the early is relatively high in the coastal mountains that flank the
Holocene. Mediterranean and in the Anti-Taurus Mountains to the
north, but is much lower inland because of the rainshad-
ow effect and continental influences. We should note
POLLEN CORES also that the distance between the isohyets increases
inland because of the open, level terrain of the interior
plateau. For example, the band between the 200 and 300
These changes in climate and vegetation are clearly mm isohyets can be 100 km or more wide. In drier
reflected in pollen cores that have been recovered from
periods, notably during the pleniglacial and the Younger
lake beds in northern Greece, Asia Minor, and the Dryas, the zones of higher rainfall were displaced
Levant. One of the most complete records is that from westward as rainfall across the interior diminished.
Tenaghi Philippon in Macedonia5. This core documents
vegetation change through a large sweep of the late The main vegetation zones in this region today are,
Pleistocene from the penultimate glaciation into the from west to east, Mediterranean forest, steppe, and
Holocene. It shows clearly that the last pleniglacial was desert, with intermediate zones between each of these.
not only cool but arid, with steppe vegetation Until the present century many of the river valleys
predominating. As conditions improved in the late glacial pines contained rich forests and lush growths of marsh plants in
and oaks spread rapidly, then all but disappeared from backswamps. Because the nature of the vegetation is
the record during the Younger Dryas, to be replaced by largely determined by moisture availability, the
steppe vegetation once more. With the onset of the vegetation zones map broadly onto the rainfall isohyets, but
Holocene, the forest expanded again, becoming the soils, aspect, and other factors also play an important
principal vegetation type. role8. The natural vegetation around Abu Hureyra today
would be moist steppe, that is rich, open grassland, if
The core from Karamik Batakligi6 in western Asia
degradation of the area by humans were not so severe.
Minor, covering the period from the pleniglacial to At the time the site was first inhabited c. 11,500 BP,
recent times, shows much the same sequence. however, the vegetation was composed of trees and
Coniferous forest dominated by cedars expanded during grassland, while open woodland lay within walking
the late glacial, only to retreat during the Younger Dryas distance to the south. The cooler, moister conditions of the
as steppe vegetation spread. The forest increased late glacial enabled each band of vegetation to move at
sharply in the early Holocene and remained the typical least one zone farther inland. The distances involved
vegetation of the area until quite recently. were considerable because, as we have seen, the isohyets
A new, well-dated, pollen core from the Huleh in this region are spaced far apart.
Basin confirms this climatic and vegetation sequence7.
The Younger Dryas event shows particularly clearly in
the pollen diagram. Interestingly, although the forest did
expand somewhat at the conclusion of the Younger

(3) VAN ZEIST and BOTTEMA, 1991: fig. 42; HILLMAN,


1996.
(4) EL-MOSLIMANY, 1994.
(5) WIJMSTRA, 1969.
(6) BOTTEMA and VAN ZEIST, 1981: fig. 10. (8) See the extended discussion in MOORE, HILLMAN, and
(7) BARUCH and BOTTEMA, 1991 fig. 3. LEGGE, in press, especially Chapter 3.
:

132
Moore: The Early Village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates

Mediterranean Sea

less than 100


101 - 150
151-200
201 - 300
EMM 301-400
401 - 500
501 - 600
601 - 800
801 - 1000
/ /Ο 1001 - 1500
/ Damascus
greatter than 1500
-

(in millimeters)
100 km

Fig. 1 - Map of mean annual rainfall in the Middle Euphrates region today.

ABU HUREYRA of naturally irrigated land close to the site. Furthermore,


the Wadi Shetnet es-Salmas acted as a corridor, allowing
upland vegetation, especially trees, and wildlife from the
Abu Hureyra was situated on the edge of the Jebel Abu Rujmein to spread along its banks to the
Euphrates Valley, on the boundary between the steppe vicinity of Abu Hureyra.
and the lush vegetation of the valley floor, so its
inhabitants could take advantage of the resources of both The ancient mound at Abu Hureyra was composed
zones. We know, too, that the site adjoined a gazelle of two successive settlements, Abu Hureyra 1 and 2. We
migration route9. It was thus a particularly favourable have obtained over 60 radiocarbon dates for the site, 13
location for hunters and gatherers to settle. There were from the British Museum laboratory using conventional
other advantages, too, that come into focus when one dating methods and the rest by accelerator mass spec-
examines a map of the topography of the area. A wadi trometry carried out at the Oxford laboratory10. This
formed by the confluence of the Wadi Shetnet es-Salmas massive dating program has enabled us to date the
sequence of occupation with unusual completeness and
and Wadi Hibna joins the Euphrates just west of the site precision (fig. 3). The dates indicate that the village of
(fig. 2). The Wadi Shetnet es-Salmas is fed by runoff Abu Hureyra 1 was inhabited from c. 11,500 to 10,000
from the massif of the Jebel Abu Rujmein to the south. BP. It was followed by a further episode of occupation
Together with the Wadi Hibna, it drains a basin of that we have called the Intermediate Period (c. 10,000 to
2,500 km2. These wadis are dry today except after rain, 9,400 BP). The village of Abu Hureyra 2 was inhabited
but in the moister conditions of the late glacial with
abundant surface vegetation they probably flowed year-
round. This wadi system would have provided an area
(10) Most of these dates have already been published (MOORE
1992). For a complete list see MOORE, HILLMAN, and LEGGE, in
(9) LEGGE and ROWLEY-CONWY, 1987. press.

133
Espace naturel, espace habité en Syrie du Nord (10°-2c millénaires av. J.-C.)

Fig. 2 - The Wadi Shetnet es-Salmas and Wadi Hibna drainage systems to the south of Abu Hureyra.

from c. 9,400 until after 7,000 BP. The occupation The plant remains tell us that during the first phase
varied in intensity through this long sequence, but the dates of occupation, Period 1A (c. 11,500 to 11,000 BP), the
combined with the stratigraphie evidence make it quite vegetation around the site was especially rich11. To the
clear that the site was continuously inhabited for over north lay the thickly-vegetated valley floor while the
four and a half millennia. uplands to the south carried abundant trees and
grassland, with open forest a little farther off. The area was
rich in game and gazelle and onager were available in
ABU HUREYRA 1 great abundance during their seasons of migration.
These circumstances were especially attractive to the
hunters and gatherers who settled the site. The wild
The village of Abu Hureyra 1 was situated at the plant and animal resources in the vicinity were so
northern end of the site, on the edge of the terrace that
overlooked the Euphrates floodplain (fig. 4). In the first prolific that the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra 1A were able to
phase of occupation the village consisted of live there year-round. They gathered a wide array of
semi-subterranean, multi-roomed, pit dwellings (fig. 5). In time,
these were covered over with habitation debris and
replaced by huts built on the surface of the ground. (11) The account that follows summarises data and arguments that
are presented in full in MOORE, HILLMAN, and LEGGE, in press.

134
Moore: The Early Village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates

plants, including wild cereals and legumes, in season12,


BM-1724R
ΟχΛΜΙ β and obtained most of their meat from slaughtering herds
OxA dates 0«A-1930M660
BM-1424 of gazelle as they passed by in late April and May on
ChA-2167
OxM77 migration9.
OxA-1237
OvA-21«
The onset of the Younger Dryas, coeval with Periods
IB and 1C (c. 11,000 to 10,000 BP) at Abu Hureyra,
brought about a rapid change in the vegetation13. The
woodland retreated and the steppe lost its park-like
ABU HUREYRA 1 appearance with the demise of its trees. For the next
ΟχΛ-473 thousand years the vegetation on the plateau south of
OxA-407
OxA-397
0xA-O< Abu Hureyra consisted of dry steppe dominated by
ABU HUREYRA 2 drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs. These changes in
climate and vegetation obliged the inhabitants of Abu
OxA-GGS5
O»A-O0
Οχ/Μββ Hureyra 1 to modify their economy. Beginning soon
after 1 1,000 BP there was a steady increase in the
11,000 10.000 9.000 8,000 incidence of weed seeds in the plant remains, indicating that
Years BP cultivation was underway. And it is from Period IB and
Fig. 3 - Selected radiocarbon dates for Abu Hureyra in chronological 1C levels that we have recovered the earliest grains of
order from the British Museum (BM) and Oxford (OxA) laboratories. domestic cereals found at Abu Hureyra. This evidence
strongly suggests that the inhabitants took up farming in
order to replace the wild plant foods that were no longer
available to them. Thus, it was the original hunter-
gatherer inhabitants of the site that adopted farming, and
they did so in part because of the deterioration brought
about by the Younger Dryas.
What of the meat portion of their diet? This seems
to have been unaffected by the momentous innovations
in their plant economy. They continued to exploit the
passing herds of migrating gazelle and onager in late
April and May, with the addition of other game available
in the region during the rest of the year. Thus, during
Periods IB and \C the inhabitants became hunters and
farmers, and supplemented their diet by gathering those
wild edible plants that were still available on the dry
steppe and in the river valley. This pattern of
exploitation enabled them to continue to live on the site
throughout the year.
The improvement in the climate that followed the
Younger Dryas brought warmer and, for a time, moister
conditions to the region. This amelioration in the
environment provided the setting for Abu Hureyra during the
Intermediate Period and for much of Period 2. The
modest evidence we have for Abu Hureyra during the
Intermediate Period suggests that the economy was
based on much the same mix of resources as in the later
stages of Abu Hureyra 1 , that is farming with the
addition of new cereal crops, plant gathering, and hunting of
gazelle. The village probably looked much as it did in
Fig. 4 - Plan of the mound of Abu Hureyra showing the location Periods IB and 1C.
of the excavation trenches and the estimated extent of the village
of Abu Hureyra 1
.

(12) HILLM AN et al, 1989.


(13) MOORE and HILLM AN, 1992: 488.

135
Espace naturel, espace habité en Syrie du Nord (10e-2e millénaires av. J.-C.)

fcf

Fig. 5 - The pit dwellings of the early phase of Abu Hureyra 1. Fig. 6 - Interior of a multi-roomed, mudbrick house
The pits in the centre of the picture were joined together to form in the Abu Hureyra 2 village. The room at the top of the photograph
a single house. They had roofs of reeds supported by poles set has a plaster floor with a raised platform for sleeping.
in the postholes around the pits. On the right side a lane separates the house from its neighbour.
Trench A, from the south, scale 1 m.

ABU HUREYRA 2 We have used this economic adjustment as a


marker to distinguish Period 2A from Periods 2B and C. In
these later periods the economy was firmly based on
There were further significant changes in Period 2A
farming and herding, with minimal supplements from
(c. 9,400 to 8,300 BP). The village was much larger and
wild foods. Thus, in the final periods of occupation at
composed of rectilinear, mudbrick houses (fig. 6).
Abu Hureyra the inhabitants had developed a mature
Farming was by now the mainstay of the economy, with
Neolithic way of life.
cultivation of a variety of cereals and legumes.
Beginning in Period 2A, the inhabitants kept some sheep The growth of the village went step by step with the
and goats, animals that had probably been domesticated increase in the size of the population and adjustments in
in the vicinity. They still relied on the gazelle, however, the economy. Abu Hureyra in Period 2A was already
for the bulk of their meat supply. This way of life was very much bigger than the village of Abu Hureyra 1 ; it
to persist for a millennium, an indication that it was well probably covered about 8 ha by the end of this period.
adapted to the environmental conditions of the early This was a direct result of the development of farming in
Holocene. Sedentary life and the heavy reliance on Periods IB and 1C and the consequent growth in the
farming, however, both contributed to a steady increase population of the site. Once the inhabitants came to rely
in the size of the population and thus of the village itself. fully on farming and herding in Period 2B, the village
grew still further until it covered at least 16 ha and had a
These pressures contributed to a dramatic shift in
population of several thousand people. It had by then
the pattern of animal exploitation c. 8,300 BP. Evidently
become one of the largest villages ever known anywhere
the herds of gazelle sharply diminished in numbers
in Western Asia. Only in Period 2C, after 7,300 BP, did
because of over exploitation by humans. The response
the settlement shrink in size. The temperature was
of the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra was swift; they
approaching its Holocene maximum and the climate was
rapidly expanded their flocks of domestic sheep and goats to
becoming more arid. These changes had a deleterious
augment their meat supply, largely replacing the gazelle.
effect on farming at Abu Hureyra and contributed to the
Soon thereafter they incorporated domestic cattle and
pigs in their economy. abandonment of the site after 7,000 BP.

136
Moore: The Early Village of Abu Hureyra on the Euphrates

THE INHABITANTS AND THEIR ENVIRONMENT BIBLIOGRAPHY

The development of the successive villages at Abu BARUCH U. and BOTTEMA S.


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of their inhabitants can be properly understood only when Levant ca. 17,000-9,000 B.P. In: BAR-YOSEF O. and
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1 994 Evidence of early Holocene summer precipitation in the
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Hureyra. It was the climate that largely determined the R.S. (ed.) Late Quaternary Chronology and
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resolved to develop agriculture because of the impact of HILLMAN G.C.
the Younger Dryas. Thus, environmental change was a 1 996 Late Pleistocene changes in wild plant-foods available to
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HILLMAN G.C, COLLEDGE S.M. and HARRIS D.R.
We must also consider the impact of the inhabitants
1 989 Plant-food economy during the Epipalaeolithic period at
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not for the better. Thus, the relationship between the MOORE A.M.T.
inhabitants of Abu Hureyra and their environment was a 1 992 The impact of accelerator dating at the early village of Abu
dynamic one, with human influence counting more and Hureyra on the Euphrates. Radiocarbon 34/3: 850-858.
more with the passage of time. MOORE A.M.T. and HILLMAN G.C.
We are seeing here a complex interplay between the 1992 The Pleistocene to Holocene transition and human
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of a human community requires decisions, and those SEVERINGHAUS J.P., SOWERS T, BROOK E.J., ALLEY R.B. and
were taken by the people of Abu Hureyra themselves. BENDER M.L.
1998 Timing of abrupt climate change at the end of the
Younger Dryas interval from thermally fractionated
Andrew M. T. Moore gases in polar ice. Nature 391: 141-146.
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Yale University WIJMSTRA T.A.
P.O. Box 208236 1 969 Paly nology of the first 30 metres of a 1 20 m deep section
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Espace naturel, espace habité en Syrie du Nord (10e-2c millénaires av. J.-C.)

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138

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