Settlement Established at Abu Hureyra in Syria Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The large settlement at Abu Hureyra in northern Syria provided evidence of early peoples’ transition from a sedentary hunting and gathering economy to one based on farming and livestock husbandry.

Summary of Event

A portion of the large site called Abu Hureyra, 28.5 acres (11.5 hectares), was excavated in a salvage context during 1972 and 1973 by a team of British, American, and Australian archaeologists: A. M. T. Moore, G. C. Hillman, A. J. Legge, and their colleagues. Surveys suggested that the tell, or site, held promise for answering specific questions linked to the evolution of agriculture in the Euphrates Valley. Queries included the circumstances and chronology leading to domestication, the settlement pattern and construction techniques of the village, the attendant social and cultural changes, and specifics on the inhabitants such as health, ideology, and occupational specializations. The salvage excavation proved to be exceptionally rich in human burials, the remains of faunal and vegetal foods, architectural features, and artifact types.

The cultural history of ancient Abu Hureyra was the result of a long series of planned, coordinated projects. The site was originally selected about 9500 b.c.e. by hunters and gatherers who found the environment to be abundant in wild cereals, nuts, fruits, and a spectrum of fauna, particularly the gazelle, which was extensively hunted. This was a healthy population, enjoying high levels of nutrition. Presumably when yields of wild vegetal foods declined because of environmental changes about 9000 b.c.e., the population of Abu Hureyra began cultivating rye. The permanent settlement of pit houses numbered between one hundred and three hundred individuals.

Archaeological work determined that Abu Hureyra 1 (9500-8000 b.c.e.) was succeeded by an intermediate period (8000-7400 b.c.e.) that witnessed a population decline, as well as reduced wild-plant foraging. Village construction shifted to timber and reed huts. Cultigens were expanded during the intermediate period to include several varieties of wheat, barley, and lentils.

Abu Hureyra 2 (7400-5000 b.c.e.) demonstrates a cultural and technological lineage that links it to the earlier settlement. However, during three continuous occupation stages (Abu Hureyra 2A, 2B, and 2C), the inhabitants built on previous adaptations and ultimately created a productive economy dependent on domesticated species. Archaeological evidence indicates that early in Abu Hureyra 2, both sheep and goats were domesticated. By c. 7000 b.c.e., the population increased to 2,500 to 3,000 people; by c. 6000 b.c.e., the village population rose to 5,000 to 6,000 individuals. Mud-brick, multiroomed, single-family, single-story houses, up to 68 square yards (82 square meters) in area were constructed in close proximity to one another. Some houses contained colored plastered floors.

The economy of Abu Hureyra 2 focused on cereal cultivation, in addition to lentils, peas, vetches, and beans. Gazelle hunting remained important until about 6300 b.c.e., when sheep and goat husbandry, long an economic pursuit, replaced it. Pottery was developed about 7500 b.c.e. Cattle and pigs were added to the list of domesticates, the former perhaps being used to pull a primitive tillage tool, the ard. With the possible exception of cattle as draft animals, agricultural labor was most likely accomplished with hand tools, such as the digging stick.

The social organization of the community gradually became more complex as new economic and domestic challenges arose. Cooperation and coordination of large-scale gazelle hunting, village planning and construction, mud-brick manufacture, the transportation of materials, and decisions on field preparation, harvesting, and pasturing animals were prerequisites for the successful adaptation and continuity of the village.

Complex ideology in the form of ancestor worship appears to have emerged at Abu Hureyra: Burials were placed beneath the floors of houses, with special attention given to some skulls, which were separated from the skeletons. Evidence suggests a multistaged burial ceremony in which significant reverence and veneration were channeled toward the deceased.

Economic responsibility was divided along gender lines. Mass killing of gazelles was probably accomplished by male cooperation, coordinated by some form of leadership. Degenerative changes and stress on female skeletons revealed the physical problems linked to prolonged grain grinding through the use of the quern. Hence role specialization emerged in the village.

Long-term residency of families in particular dwellings suggests some form of close-knit lineage organization. This cooperative unit would have facilitated domestic craftsmanship and enhanced productive capacity and the successful maintenance of an agricultural surplus, at least a millennium earlier than other Neolithic sites in the area.

The 1972-1973 excavations yielded artifacts that mirrored the economic pursuits of the village during the forty-five hundred years of its existence. Bone, stone, and obsidian points, scrapers, grinding dishes, querns, and pestles used in milling were recovered as well as pottery.

Environmental changes that led to increased temperatures and decreased rainfall and most likely declining soil fertility caused the villagers to abandon the settlement c. 5000 b.c.e.

Significance

Abu Hureyra is without qualification one of the world’s first, largest, and best-documented early farming sites. It clearly demonstrates the economic, technological, and cultural changes inherent in the shift from a hunting-and-gathering way of life to an economy based on early farming techniques.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, David R., ed. The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. A collection of twenty-nine articles on early domestication, including several that discuss Abu Hureyra. Bibliographies, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillman, G. C., P. A. Rowley-Conwy, and A. J. Legge. “On the Charred Seeds from Epipaleolithic Abu Hureyra: Food or Fuel?” Current Anthropology 38 (1997): 651-655. Discussion of the vegetal remains from Abu Hureyra.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Legge, A. J., and P. A. Rowley-Conwy. “Gazelle Killing in Stone Age Syria.” Scientific American 257, no. 2 (1987): 88-95. An examination of large-scale gazelle slaughter long after agriculture emerged.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, A. M. T., G. C. Hillman, and A. J. Legge. Village on the Euphrates. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Complete coverage of the 1972-1973 excavations at Abu Hureyra. Bibliography, index.

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