In search of the world's first farmers

Author: Ed Cohen

Watching Ian Kuijt and his excavation team delicately trowel and sift rock and relics from dust on a lifeless parched plateau next to the Dead Sea, you’d never guess what the archaeologist thinks went on there 11,500 years ago.


In fact, the Notre Dame associate professor of anthropology theorizes that this desolate desert locale in eastern Jordan was one of the places where mankind first traded in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for year-round housing and the food security of cultivated plants. He calls this transition “the most important social and economic event in the history of the world.”

Key to Kuijt’s belief is a discovery made at the site, known as Dhra’, in summer 2001. About two feet beneath the surface, the dig team, which included seven Notre Dame undergraduates, uncovered what appears to be the foundation of a 9-by-9-foot structure. Dating to about 9500 B.C., the building was smaller than other structures whose foundations had been unearthed nearby at the same depth. These appear to have been dwellings. The smaller structure also had at least two levels, an architectural feature never before seen in ruins this old, says Kuijt, whose name is pronounced “kite.”

The archaeologist and project co-director Bill Finlayson of the Council for British Research in the Levant (a part of the Near East that includes Jordan and Palestine) are eagerly awaiting analysis of materials sifted from the interior of the smaller structure’s foundation. They expect to find traces of barley or wheat because they strongly suspect the building was used to dry and store grain. In other words, a granary.

If so, the ancient village would represent not only the earliest known farming community but one of the earliest sites where people lived year-round instead of wandering from place to place collecting berries and other edible vegetation as they came into season.

Kuijt says mankind’s transition from foraging to farming fundamentally reshaped our relationship with nature. Instead of being at the mercy of weather, people could now store food from bountiful years for future lean times. This led to population growth, which in turn spurred technological advances in food production, transportation and storage.

The downside was that this new close living arrangement encouraged the development and spread of diseases. And because the first farmers concentrated on a reduced variety of crops, their diets were badly unbalanced and much less nutritious than the unavoidably diverse fare on which their foraging ancestors subsisted.

“Farmer” is actually a generous title to apply to the ancient inhabitants of the Jordan Valley plateau, as their manipulation of plants probably involved no more than weeding and watering what was already growing there, Kuijt says. Of greater interest is how these early crop-tenders encouraged anything to grow in a place where rain is scarce and summer heat sometimes exceeds 120 degrees.

The answer is that like North America, which was substantially covered in glaciers 11,500 years ago, the Jordan Valley site’s climate was also much different when people lived there. Kuijt says the region used to be a lush temperate zone with open forests of oak and pistachio trees (the archaeologists have found shells among the ruins). There’s even evidence of wetlands, as more than half the animal bones uncovered belong to water fowl like ducks and birds that live along ponds. Other bones indicate the past presence of gazelles, foxes, hedgehogs and rabbits. Arrowheads and stone tools indicate these farmers did not live by wheat, barley and pistachio nuts alone.

As was the case with the retreat of North America’s glaciers, Kuijt says, Jordan’s climate didn’t change to desert-like overnight but over thousands of years. “In the Bronze Age, 5,000 years ago people were still living there happily.”

The dig team has yet to uncover any human remains. If other excavations in the region are any indication, these probably lie beneath the floors of the dwellings, a depth to which the team has not yet probed. Kuijt says it was a common mortuary practice during the period, termed the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, to inter the dead in separate pits beneath a residence and then plaster over the opening. Interestingly, the pit would often be reopened later, after the deceased’s flesh had decomposed, so that the skull could be removed and deposited in a village cache. The skull cache became the focus of community rituals.

Kuijt plans to return to the excavation site three more summers under funding from the National Science Foundation and the University’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.