Tell Abu Hureyra Earliest Rye Farming

Tell Abu Hureyra is the remains of a village, found on the south bank of the Euphrates River, in Syria. It was excavated by a British team in 1972 and 1973. The village was subsequently flooded under Lake Assad, a reservoir of the Tabqa Dam.

Tell Abu Hureyra is important because it proved to be the earliest domestic agricultural evidence found, to date, in the world. Grains found at the site were examined and, according to Professor Gordon Hillman (Institute of Archeology, London) who co-led the excavation with Andrew Moore, climate was a huge factor in the beginning of cultivation.

The grains dated to around 11,050 BC and were from rye plants. It appears that there was a period of climate change around that time, from improving to unstable, which badly affected the wild plant supply. The people of the area seem to have realized that the only way to ensure a good supply of food plants was to cultivate them under conditions which could be controlled by the villagers. This led to the birth of farming.

There had been a settlement on the Tell Abu Hureyra site for upwards of four hundred years before this explosion in agriculture, peopled by hunter-gatherers. These people were known as the Epi-palaeolithic hunter-gatherers and they were the predecessors of the Neolithic peoples. They used tools with flint or obsidian blades set into wooden handles, which were quite advanced tools for the time.

The people of Tell Abu Hureyra erected round huts, roofed with reeds. Aside from using the huts as living quarters, probably for a few hundred people, underground pits were also included for the safe and dry storage of foodstuff. Food would have consisted of meat, wild plants and fish.

These people hunted gazelle, especially during the migration of the animals in the spring. Many animals were killed and the meat stored for leaner times. Gazelle was not the only source of meat available to the villagers. They also hunted Onager, cattle and sheep. The excavations at Tell Abu Hureyra showed some evidence that animals were probably penned and kept as domesticated stock.

Hunting continued throughout the year and included smaller creatures, hare and foxes, and birds. The people also gathered wild wheat, Einkorn and Emmer, alongside rye. From this wild rye came the grain evidence of domestic cultivation. Scientific research showed that the rye’s genetic make-up showed evidence of selective planting that had resulted in identifiable characteristics of cultivation. In other words, the people selected the best grain from the previous crop to replant and improve the next season’s yield.

Tell Abu Hureyra was abandoned for a period of time, possibly due to climate change once more, but was reestablished as a much larger, Neolithic settlement, around 9000 years ago. These people built mud-brick houses on the Tell (the Arabic word for ‘mound’), houses which were erected on the remains of the previous settlement.

These people also cultivated the land, growing a wider range of cereals. They also kept domestic herds, began weaving and using pottery (around 6000 BC). Human remains from the time suggest that life at Tell Abu Hureyra was not easy. Deformities have been found in bones which suggest a life of laboring, especially in grinding the grain. The settlement appears to have ultimately been abandoned around 5900 BC.

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