Student Reader

Neolithic Levant

In the Neolithic (11,000-6,000 BC), people began subsisting by cultivating cereals and legumes, domesticating sheep and goats, hunting wild game, gathering wild seed and fruit and product trading.

During the 5,000 Neolithic years, the Near East shifted from small hunting bands to agricultural villages (.2-12 ha) within fertile Levantine zones. The Neolithic in the Levant spanned from 8300 to 4500 BC. The Pre-Pottery Neolithic has all Pottery Neolithic features except pottery. Falling at the bands/tribes level, theories on how this Neolithic development occurred are below.

Neolithic cultures had a farmer-hunter economy that relied upon raising of cereals and pulse, and the the hunting of wild animals.

Their sites are often buried under alluvium. Alluvial fans were easy to clear for simple farming, and inundation ensured soil fertility. However, as watercourses changed, stones covered the abandoned sites and made them very difficult to find. Hunter-gatherers could exchange hunted meat, plants and desert fruits. Agricultural societies could exchange food products, household items, and practical and decorative lithics. Materials that traveled great distance includes obsidian, asphalt, greenstone and salt.

Obisidian was most commonly traded, and radioactive analysis has traced Levantine and Transjordan obsidian mostly to eastern Anatolia. Trade of domesticated plants and animals is illuminated by their locations over time.

Instead of Natufian exploitation of wild cereals, legumes, seeds and fruits, a clear shift occured in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A toward systematic cultivation and reduced gathering.

Hunting and fishing during the Natufian continued to a lesser extent into the Neolithic. Regarding lithics, Neolithic knapping and tool preparation techniques are markedly different from the Natufian. Also, microliths decreased sharply from ~40% (during the Natufian) to ~20% of total lithics. These changes were seen in agricultural areas first, then a few hundred years later in desert areas.

Levantine flora were/are Mediterranean and Irano-Turanian. Sparse rainfall was regular enough during the winter to support farming.

Early Neolithic sites (ie, Jericho and Netiv Ha-Gdud) have been found beneath alluvial fans of wadis out of hills. This indicates that watercourses have changed their flow, burying some sites with alluvium). Natufian sites -- often in caves -- are usually alluvium-free and thus more easily found than Neolithic sites.

The Neolithic is also defined by the secondary products revolution and horticulture. Polished stone axes, pottery and domesticated cereals and animals developed quicker in the European Neolithic than in the Levantine Neolithic.

Event Time Overview
Pre-Pottery Neolithic 8,300 - 5,500 BC
Event Time Overview
Pre-Pottery A 8,300 - 7,300 BC PPNA continues Natufian traditions, including dog domestication and early domestication of certain plants like wheat. The presence of grinding-stones, querns and bowls indicate a shift toward domestication of plants. Also, the PPNA is marked by plano-convex instead of hog-backed bricks. In addition, there were possible fortifications in the PPNA. The Khiamian (hunter-gatherer) and Sultanian (hunter-farmer) cultures were notable.
Pre-Pottery B 7,300 - 5,500 BC The PPNB brings lime plaster statues, molded skull burial customs, recitlinear houses (and lime plastered floors), distinct lithic radition (unique points, new tools) and white ware White ware consists of simple vessels made from lime and ash, giving the appearance of soft limestone.
Pottery Neolithic 6000 - 5000 BC
or 5800 - 4800 BC

The Pottery Neolithic's material culture is related to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B and C, and is distinguished by the development of ceramic. Settlements shifted from marginal areas to more humid areas, allowing more comfortable living. Yarmoukian, where the Yarmouk Valley pours into the Jordan Valley, is a classic northern Pottery Neolithic A site; there are extensive lithics and occasional ceramics and fired clays.

Wadi Rabah is exemplary of the northern Pottery Neolithic B. To the south, Jericho spans the Pottery Neolithic A and B.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic

Anthropo- and zoo-morphic figurines have a presumedly religious motivation. An alternative to the cultic possibility is the use of figurines as teaching aids on the mysteries of life. While large-scale cultic items have not been found, smaller finds indicate a household basis for cultic tradition. Exemplary of the Levant's Pre-Pottery Neolithic are plaster statues, clay figures, modelled skulls and stone masks. These all show remarkable facial similarities.

Crude male and femlae figures have been found at Jericho, Munhata, Beidha, Nahal Hemar, 'Ain Ghazal and elsewhere. Lime-plaster figurines from 'Ain Ghazal include full-lengths and busts of men, women and children; the faces were painted with green (likely ground malachite), red (ocher) and black. Eyes were inlaid with Mediterranean or Red Sea shells (as were some modelled skulls).

Modelled skulls are adult skulls, usually lacking the lower jaw, with their front and bottom molded with clay or asphalt (like a mask) and the eyes inlaid with shells, cowrie or dog-dockle. The bottom surface is mostly flat with a mild arch. Numerous skulls have been found together, although it is unclear whether this was for cultic, sacred, storage or all three purposes (likely the case at Nahal Hemar).

Pre-Pottery Neolithic A

Anatolian obsidian was found at Jericho, indicating some form of trade. Microlithis dropped sharply in abundance during the PPNA, a marked departure from the Natufian. PPNA art was limited to anthropomorphic figurines of chalk and clay, although a few stone figurines have been found with crude outlines of features. Also, social stratification is indicated by a range of sizes amongst PPNA houses. Joint communal effort in the PPNA is evidenced by the tower and wall at Jericho.

Levantine Pre-Pottery Neolithic A sites include: Jericho and Nahal Oren in Israel; Netiv Ha-Gdud, Gilgal and Gesher in the Jordan Valley; and Hatula in the Judaean hills. The sites were either built upon or have been submerged under alluvial fans. Wall foundations at Jericho, Gilgal, Netiv Ha-Gdud and Nahal Oren are made of mortar-reinforced stones, slabs or even bricks. Actual walls were made of sticks and mud, or bricks. Jericho and Netiv Ha-Gdud yielded well-preserved loaf- (plano-convex) and cigar-shaped bricks with lengths of 30-40 cm.

Floorplans were circular or oval. Nahal Oren has yielded 13 structures, ranging from 5-15 sq m (most are 7-10). On the other hand, Netiv Ha-Gdud has yielded structures of adjoining small rooms that are each 6-10 sq m (smaller) to 20-30 sq m (larger). Roofing small rooms required only branches, sticks, hides or clay-covered mats; roofing larger rooms required additional support, likely by a centrally erected wooden post. At Jericho and Netiv Ha-Gdud, floors were plastered with clay or levigated mud; mats sometimes left impressions on wet clay. Floors were sometimes laid on a pebble or stone foundation. Nathal Oren's clay floors were unpreserved -- occupation levels were identified only by hearths, stone slabs, storage installations (30-50 cm wide/deep) and soil color changes.

Assemblage Time Overview
Sultanian PPNA Found in Mediterranean Zone north of Beersheba valley at Jericho (Tell el-Sultan), Gilgal and Netiv Ha-Gdud.
Khiamian PPNA Overlaps with Sultanian. Named after el-Khiam (in Egypt).
Harifian PPNA Negev and North Sinai.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic B

Herd animals were domesticated in the Levant during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B. Sheep and goats were domesticated for practical reasons, and much later cattle were domesticated (although for religious/sacrifice reasons). There was an intense adoration of cattle, evidenced by clay bucrania crowned with real horns found at Catal Huyuk in Anatolia.

Also, the PPNB begins the Neolithic distinction of shifting from circular/oval to rectilinear houses.This was likely due to space limitations, as rectilinear rooms can be efficiently crammed into a small space. Indeed, houses were built one room at a time as needed and rectilinear houses take up much less space than their increasingly rare circular/oval counterparts.

Also arriving in the PPNB is white ware. White ware refers to bowls, cups and footed bowls of lime and ash (giving the impression of soft limestone). Vessels of this type have been found through the ancient Near East.

Assemblage Time Overview
Tahunian PPNB Found in Mediterranean Zone, including Jericho.
Desert PPNB Desert cultures are found in Negev and Sinai.

Pre-Pottery Neolithic C

Rollefson's excavations in Jordan have suggested a 6,000-5,500 BC Pre-Pottery Neolithic C, based on the following criteria:
Trait Description
Economy Domestication developed enough to demarcate a new period.
Architecture Extensive innovation and variation.
Lithics Development of lithic technology and typology.
Sociology Prior villages abandoned. New villages indicate social change.

Pottery Neolithic

Although continuous with the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, knowledge about the Levant's Pottery Neolithic period is fragmentary. This is largely due to a shift in settlement patterns, likely due to a climatic change at the beginning of the 6th millennium BC that dried and then re-moistened the Levant. There are sites in the Jordan valley, and the few hill and desert sites lagged behind their agricultural counterparts: they remained hunter-gatherers; did not use pottery for cooking; and even still built somewhat circular/oval houses. However, the economic base did not change and people still subsisted on domesticated sheep and goats, as well as pigs by now; some wild species were still hunted, possibly by hunter-gatherers who then sold their catch. Distinct forms within the Levantine Pottery Neolithic material culture include tots-in-pots (jars of dead infants) and coffee-bean-eyed figurines. Also, ceramics finally arrived during the Pottery Neolithic. However, ceramics were made on an individual basis, were not widespread, and mostly took on natural forms. It is thus difficult to distinguish distinct ceramics assemblages (let alone styles that can be traced to a specific time or place, as is done with later ceramics).Many sickle blades and grinding tools exist, indicating reaping and preparation of grain. Larger pots could have been used as silos or for liquid storage. Obsidian trade, largely attested at Wadi Rabah, continued -- howver, other trade is scarcely evidenced.

Lithics are continuous with the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. Blade production evolved mildly, and axe cross-sections remained trapezoidal or almond-shaped. However, in the late Pottery Neolithic, the transverse arrowhead first appeared, fashioned from a blade segment into a trapezoidal or triangular shape. The sickle blade also evolves from a coarse denticulation to a fine (or no) denticulation; this is also characteristic of the Chalcolithic. Fan scrapers also appear in the late Pottery Neolithic.

Artistically, the coffee-bean-eyed figurine is unique to the Pottery Neolithic. It is a clay figurine of a seated woman with ample breasts, a large belly and a heaaddress; her eyes resemble coffee beans. A complete coffee-bean-eyed figurine was found at Munhata (near Sha'ar Ha-Golan) and in Tel Aviv. In another emphasis of the female form, pebbles have been found with crude incisions of eyes, a mouth, hands, legs and possibly a vaginal slit. These pebbles may have been heated, then pressed onto an individual's skin to leave patterned scars. As sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were all domesticated by this time, it is understandable that their forms have also been found fashioned in clay.

Architecture consisted mostly of house pits, storage pits and pits dug for clay excavation. These pits quickly filled with natural and occupation debris. House pits were 3-4 m in diameter and 1 m deep. A house pit at Munhata contained a bench, hearth and paved area. Roofing was made of mud, reeds, thatch and/or hides. Pottery, lithics, animal bones and other artifacts were discovered in and near these pits. Deep and narrow pits were likely formed by clay and earth excavation, followed by use as silos. Despite few graves overall, jar burials of infants have been found (tots-in-pots); however, typical of nomadic lifestyles, these centralized burial locations lack an accompanying settlement.

The four main Pottery Neolithic assemblages (cultures) in the Levant are Wadi Rabah, Yarmukian, Coastal and Desert.
Assemblage Description
Wadi Rabah Sites are on plains or alluvial terraces, and max out at 2-4 ha. It was first discovered beneath Wadi Rabah's Ghassulian Chalcolithic layer. Floorplans are rectilinear, with round grain silos installed in the floor. Pottery vessels resembles north Syrian dark-faced burnished ware and includes both red and black slipped vessels with a high burnish. Forms include carinated bowls, platter and closed vessels (primarily bow-rimmed type). Chalices and pedestal bowls are considered successors of white ware. Handles are often ledges and loops. Decorations are generally incisions, stipples or combs, as well as ropes or snakes. Wadi Rabah's lithic assemblage grows to domainte the Chalcolithic period, including plano-convex cross-sections of adzes and finer serrated edges. There was mild interaction with Anatolia and Egypt, as indicated by finds in a burial tomb.
Yarmukian Found in Mediterranean Zone during Sha'ar Ha-Golan and Munhata phases.
Coastal Coastal cultures are found along coast.
Desert Desert cultures of the Negev and Sinai are unnamed.

Neolithic Levant Explanations

Below are established explanations for the Neolithic's developments. These explanations place varying emphasis upon: ecological factors at the end of the glacial period ~9th millennium BC, as glaciers melted and temperatures rose; and social factors of between/within different societies, including more functional (need → response to need) explanations. These theories draw upon botany, palynology, and zooarchaeology to varying extents.

Theory Description
Oasis Theory By the Neolithic, people lived near oases (or watering holes) and for sustenance they domesticated animals (just for food value) and cultivated some plants. This led to a self-sufficient economy. Gordon Childe was a pioneer of this theory, aka environmental determinism or desiccation theory. As glaciers retreated, Mediterranean or even temperate zones became desiccated deserts that forced human groups to converge on the oasis-like Nile, Euphrates and Tigris river valleys. This closer human, plant and animal interaction led to a better understanding and ability to exploit the growth cycle. This theory can be tested, as if agriculture began in the Nile valley then botanical, palynological or faunal remains would indicate a sharp climate change in the Near East at the end of the glacial period.
Nuclear Zone Upper Paleolithic food-gathering and -processing technology permitted exploitation of new food sources (including small mammals, fish, shellfish and wild cereals). The ensuing abundance permitted sedentary villages; permanent settlement allowed human society to evolve from within. This theory can be tested by whether a continual abundant food source was present to permit choice. With this in mind, botanist Robert Braidwood noted that agriculture would have first emerged where cereals predominate annual grasses. Carbon-14 dating located this nuclear zone in valleys descending from hilly flanks of Zagros (Iraq), Taurus (Turkey) and other ranges 300 to 1,500 m above sea level. Accordingly, this theory is aka the hilly flanks theory.
Demography Boserap observed developing countries, asserting that demographic pressure (population growth) brought food production development by force, not by free choice. This theory was tested by Smith and Young, who causally linked: climatic change in the Zagros at the end of the Pleistocene; sedentary settlements; population growth; and food obtention development. Sedentariness allowed women to have more births, directly causing a population boom. Simultaneously, a cycle arose where agricultural development and population growth fed into each other (giving rise to irrigation, and hoe agriculture).
Marginal Zone Some Neolithic sites (Tell Mureybet and Tell Abu Hureyra) are over 150 km from the nearest wild gain. Binford and Flannery independently developed a theory where climate change forced groups to move into desert margins. Bringing their cereals with them, this new environment exerted a selective pressure that inadvertently domesticated wheat and barley. Thus, grain domestication did not occur in nuclear zones where grain is plentiful, but in marginal zones where it was forcibly domesticated by natural selection.
Systems Theory This theory involves many different local attributes -- water, wheat, etc -- overlapping to form a special environment for Neolithic developments to occur and spread.
Multiplier Effect As one technology develops then it can be built upon.
Neolithic LevantComments