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Seeds of Civilization: Bronze Age Rural Economy and Ecology in the Southern Levant

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This paper considers the economic and environmental impacts of emerging regional commerce that accompanied the rise and collapse of early Near Eastern urbanism. We integrate regional data on settlement and vegetation with detailed evidence of rural agriculture from two Bronze Age villages in the Jordan Valley. This approach is explicitly rural, in light of the largely rural character of Levantine civilization, and in response to more orthodox analytical perspectives focused on the first cities. Long-standing interest in the advent of agriculture now reveals that intensive localized depletion of woodland resources followed the aggregation of sedentary agrarian communities in the eighth through sixth millennia B.C., while the development of specialized pastoralism established one potential source of more extensive, subsequent defoliation. We argue, however, that regional human impacts on Levantine vegetation were triggered only with the genesis of Bronze Age cities and urbanized economies in the third and second millennia B.C. Thereafter, these regional impacts molded an ever-shifting mosaic of anthropogenic and natural landscapes. Rank-size analysis illustrates the modestly integrated, largely rural nature of Bronze Age settlement in the southern Levant. In this context, Tell Abu en-Ni‘aj and Tell el-Hayyat provide appropriate examples of the resilient agrarian villages that persisted through the dramatic collapse and rebirth of early Levantine cities. Excavated plant remains and animal bones show that their inhabitants responded to the development of Bronze Age urbanism with a shift toward increased management of taxa with greater market potential, tempered by some retention of local economic autonomy. Shifts to greater sheep husbandry and, most significantly, cultivation of orchard crops like olives, figs, and grapes, signal a second wave of economic innovation that fundamentally altered the agricultural strategies of village farmers and their exploitation of the surrounding countryside. Thus the mixed cultural and natural landscapes that have supported long-term agriculture in the Levant reflect a legacy of discontinuous changes in rural economy and ecology in response to the waxing and waning of urbanized society and regional mercantile exchange.
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Keywords: Agricultural intensification; Bronze Age; Near East; environmental impacts; orchard cultivation; southern Levant; urbanism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Geography, Arizona State University, 2: Department of Environmental Studies, Rollins College, 3: Department of Anthropology, Arizona state University

Publication date: 1998-03-01

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