Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations - David R. Montgomery (2007)
Chapter 3. RIVERS OF LIFE
Egypt is the gift of the Nile.
FOUNDATIONAL TEXTS OF WESTERN RELIGIONS acknowledge the fundamental relationship between humanity and the soil. The Hebrew name of the first man, Adam, is derived from the word adama, which means earth, or soil. Because the name of Adam's wife, Eve, is a translation of hava, Hebrew for "living," the union of the soil and life linguistically frames the biblical story of creation. God created the earth-Adam-and life-Evesprang from the soil-Adam's rib. The Koran too alludes to humanity's relation to the soil. "Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them? ... They tilled the soil and populated it in greater numbers ... to their own destruction" (Sura 30:9). Even the roots of Western language reflect humanity's dependence on soil. The Latin word for human, homo, is derived from humus, Latin for living soil.
The image of a lush garden of Eden hardly portrays the Middle East today. Yet life for the region's Ice Age inhabitants was less harsh than along the great northern ice sheets. As the ice retreated after the peak of the last glaciation, game was plentiful and wild stands of wheat and barley could be harvested to supplement the hunt. Are vague cultural memories of a prior climate and environment recorded in the story of the garden from which humanity was ejected before the rise of civilization?
Regardless of how we view such things, the changing climate of the last two million years rearranged the world's ecosystems time and again. The Ice Age was not a single event. More than twenty major glaciations repeatedly buried North America and Europe under ice, defining what geologists call the Quaternary-the fourth era of geologic time.
At the peak of the most recent glaciation, roughly 20,000 years ago, glaciers covered almost a third of Earth's land surface. Outside of the tropics even unglaciated areas experienced extreme environmental changes. Human populations either adapted, died out, or moved on as their hunting and foraging grounds shifted around the world.
Each time Europe froze, North Africa dried, becoming an uninhabitable sand sea. Naturally, people left. Some migrated south back into Africa. Others ventured east to Asia or into southern Europe as periodic climate upheavals launched the great human migrations that eventually circled the world.
Judged by the fossil evidence, Homo erectus walked out of Africa and ventured east across Asia, sticking to tropical and temperate latitudes about two million years ago just after the start of the glacial era. Fossil and DNA evidence indicates that the initial separation of Neanderthals from the ancestors of genetically modern humans occurred at least 300,000 years ago-about the time Neanderthals arrived in Europe and western Asia. After successfully adapting to the glacial climate of northwestern Eurasia, Neanderthals disappeared as a new wave of genetically modern humans spread from Africa through the Middle East around 45,000 years ago and across Europe by at least 35,000 years ago. People continued spreading out across the world when the Northern Hemisphere's great ice sheets once again plowed southward, rearranging the environments of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.
During the most recent glaciation, large herds of reindeer, mammoth, wooly rhinoceroses, and giant elk roamed Europe's frozen plains. Ice covered Scandinavia, the Baltic coast, northern Britain, and most of Ireland. Treeless tundra stretched from France through Germany, on to Poland and across Russia. European forests shrank to a narrow fringe around the Mediterranean. Early Europeans lived through this frozen time by following and culling herds of large animals. Some of these species, notably wooly rhinos and giant elk, did not survive the transition to the postglacial climate.
Extreme environmental shifts also isolated human populations and helped differentiate people into the distinct appearances we know today as races. Skin shields our bodies and critical organs from ultraviolet radiation. But skin must also pass enough sunlight to support production of the vitamin D needed to make healthy bones. As our ancestors spread around the globe, these opposing pressures colored the skin of people in different regions. The dominant need for UV protection favored dark skin in the tropics; the need for vitamin D favored lighter skin in the northern latitudes.
Technological innovation played a key role in the spread and adaptation of people to new environments. Roughly 30,000 years ago, immediately before the last glaciation, the development of thin, sharp stone tools ushered in a major technological revolution. Then, about 23,000 years ago, just before the last glacial maximum, the art of hunting changed radically as the bow and arrow began to replace spears. Development of eyed needles allowed the production of hoods, gloves, and mittens from wooly animal hides. Finally equipped to endure the long winter of another glacial era, central Asian hunters began following large game across the grassy steppe west into Europe, or east into Siberia and on to North America.
Unglaciated areas also experienced dramatic shifts in vegetation as the planet cooled and warmed during glacial and interglacial times. Long before the last glacial advance, people around the world burned forest patches to maintain forage for game or to favor edible plants. Shaping their world to suit their needs, our hunting and gathering ancestors were not passive inhabitants of the landscape. Despite their active manipulation, small human populations and mobile lifestyles left little discernable impact on natural ecosystems.
Transitions from a glacial to interglacial world occurred many times during the last two million years. Through all but the most recent glaciation, people moved along with their environment rather than staying put and adapting to a new ecosystem. Then, after living on the move for more than a million years, they started to settle down and become farmers. What was so different when the glaciers melted this last time that caused people to adopt a new lifestyle?
Several explanations have been offered to account for this radical change. Some argue that the shift from a cool, wet glacial climate to less hospitable conditions put an environmental squeeze on early people in the Middle East. In this view, hunters began growing plants in order to survive when the climate warmed and herds of wild game dwindled. Others argue that agriculture evolved in response to an inevitable process of cultural evolution without any specific environmental forcing. Whatever the reasons, agriculture developed independently in Mesopotamia, northern China, and Mesoamerica.
For much of the last century, theories for the origin of agriculture emphasized the competing oasis and cultural evolution hypotheses. The oasis hypothesis held that the postglacial drying of the Middle East restricted edible plants, people, and other animals to well-watered floodplains. This forced proximity bred familiarity, which eventually led to domestication. In contrast, the cultural evolution hypothesis holds that regional environmental change was unimportant in the gradual adoption of agriculture through an inevitable progression of social development. Unfortunately, neither hypothesis provides satisfying answers for why agriculture arose when and where it did.
A fundamental problem with the oasis theory is that the wild ancestors of our modern grains came to the Middle East from northern Africa at the end of the last glaciation. This means that the variety of food resources available to people in the Middle East was expanding at the time that agriculture arose-the opposite of the oasis theory. So the story cannot be as simple as the idea that people, plants, and animals crowded into shrinking oases as the countryside dried. And because only certain people in the Middle East adopted agriculture, the cultural adaptation hypothesis falls short. Agriculture was not simply an inevitable stage on the road from hunting and gathering to more advanced societies.
The transition to an agricultural society was a remarkable and puzzling behavioral adaptation. After the peak of the last glaciation, people herded gazelles in Syria and Israel. Subsisting on these herds required less effort than planting, weeding, and tending domesticated crops. Similarly, in Central America several hours spent gathering wild corn could provide food for a week. If agriculture was more difficult and time-consuming than hunting and gathering, why did people take it up in the first place?
Increasing population density provides an attractive explanation for the origin and spread of agriculture. When hunting and gathering groups grew beyond the capacity of their territory to support them, part of the group would split off and move to new territory. Once there was no more productive territory to colonize, growing populations developed more intensive (and time-consuming) ways to extract a living from their environment. Such pressures favored groups that could produce food themselves to get more out of the land. In this view, agriculture can be understood as a natural behavioral response to increasing population.
Modern studies have shown that wild strains of wheat and barley can be readily cultivated with simple methods. Although this ease of cultivation suggests that agriculture could have originated many times in many places, genetic analyses show that modern strains of wheat, peas, and lentils all came from a small sample of wild varieties. Domestication of plants fundamental to our modern diet occurred in just a few places and times when people began to more intensively exploit what had until then been secondary resources.
The earliest known semiagricultural people lived on the slopes of the Zagros Mountains between Iraq and Iran about 11,000 to 9000 BC (or thirteen thousand to eleven thousand years ago). Surviving by hunting gazelles, sheep, and goats and gathering wild cereals and legumes, these people occupied small villages but made extensive use of seasonal hunting camps and caves. By 7500 Bc herding and cultivation replaced hunting and gathering as the mainstay of their diet and settled villages of up to twentyfive households kept sheep and goats and grew wheat, barley, and peas. By then hunting accounted for only about 5 percent of their food. Why the big change, and why then and there?
The earliest evidence for systematic cultivation of grains comes from Abu Hureyra in the headwaters of the Euphrates River in modern Syria. The archaeological record from this site shows that cultivation began in response to a period when the drier conditions of glacial times abruptly returned after thousands of years of climatic amelioration. Abu Hureyra provides a unique record of the transition from the hunter-gathering lifestyle of the last glacial era to cereal-based agriculture. Moreover, evidence from the site helps explain why people adopted the labor-intensive business of agriculture. They were forced into it.
As glaciation ended, the Levant gradually warmed and received increasing rainfall. From about 13,000 to 11,000 BC open oak forest gradually replaced the grasslands of the glacial steppe. A core drilled from the bed of Lake Huleh in northeastern Israel shows that tree pollen increased from a fifth to three-quarters of all the pollen during this period. Abundant game and wild grains (especially rye and wheat) made for an edenic landscape with few people and lots of resources. Sedentary communities of huntergatherers began to take root in locations where resources were particularly abundant.
Then the world's climate reverted to almost full glacial conditions for a thousand years, from about io,ooo to 9000 BC, a period known as the Younger Dryas. Arboreal pollen dropped back to less than a quarter of the total amount of pollen, indicating a sharp decline in precipitation and a return to the steppelike conditions of the glacial climate. The forest retreated northward, away from the world's first settled community.
Abu Hureyra sat on a low promontory overlooking the Euphrates Valley, about i8o miles northeast of Damascus. Plant debris excavated from the site records the transition from foraging for a wide variety of wild plants to cultivation of a few crops by the end of the Younger Dryas. The earliest plant remains associated with settlement of the site include more than one hundred species of seeds and fruits from the marshes and forest of the Euphrates Valley. Abundant animal bones reveal substantial reliance on hunting, especially gazelles. Moreover, the site was occupied yearround. The people of Abu Hureyra were not nomadic hunter-gatherers. They permanently inhabited a defined territory around their village. A couple hundred people occupied Abu Hureyra by the time that the Younger Dryas ushered in a thousand years of cold, dry weather that dramatically altered plant and animal resources. Fruits and seeds of droughtsensitive plants disappeared from the diet. Wild lentils and legumes harvested from nearby woodland also disappeared. As eden dried out, food became scarce.
Why didn't they just move? Probably because Abu Hureyra was already one of the region's best sites. Surrounding areas experienced similar changes and offered even less sustenance. Besides, other people already occupied the next best land. People with rapidly disappearing food supplies usually do not welcome new neighbors. The people of Abu Hureyra had no place to go.
Out of options, they began to cultivate wild varieties of rye and wheat that survived the transition to a colder, more arid climate. Of the plants that survived, only cereals could be cultivated to produce food capable of storage for use throughout the year. Despite the worsening aridity, seeds of drought-intolerant weeds typical of agricultural fields increased dramatically during the Younger Dryas. At first, wild cereals were cultivated on hillsides using rain-fed agriculture. Within a few centuries domesticated varieties of rye appeared in the fields, as did legumes such as lentils.
The switch to cultivation required more time and energy to produce a calorie of food. It is not something that would have been undertaken lightly. The sedentary style of hunting and gathering practiced by the early inhabitants of Abu Hureyra left them susceptible to declining food availability as the climate changed. Once wild food sources were fully exploited the population was vulnerable to seasonal shortages brought on by increasing aridity. Begun out of desperation, agriculture expanded to include other crops such as barley and peas as the climate improved after the Younger Dryas ended. Settlement around Abu Hureyra grew rapidly in the warmer climate. Fueled by growing harvests, within a couple thousand years the village's population swelled to between four thousand and six thousand.
Figure 3. Map of the Middle East.
The climate shift of the Younger Dryas was not the only factor that influenced the adoption of agriculture. Population growth during the preceding several thousand years led to the advent of sedentary communities of hunter-gatherers and contributed to the effect of this climate shift on human populations. Still, the starving people of Abu Hureyra could never have imagined that their attempt to adapt to a drying world would transform the planet.
Such adaptation may have occurred around the region. The end of the Younger Dryas coincides with changes in culture and settlement patterns throughout much of the Middle East. Neolithic settlements that emerged after the Younger Dryas were located at sites ideally suited for agriculture with rich soils and ample water supplies. Charred remains of domesticated wheat dating from io,ooo years ago are found in sites near Damascus, in northwestern Jordan, and on the Middle Euphrates River. Domesticated crops then spread south to Jericho in the Jordan Valley and northwest into southern Turkey.
Although tradition places agriculture in the Middle East long before any parallel activity in Asia and the Americas, recent research suggests that people in South America, Mexico, and China may have domesticated plants long before the first signs of settled villages in these regions. Sediments in a cave called Diaotonghuan along China's Yangtze River tell a story similar to that of Abu Hureyra in which wild rice was domesticated around the time of the Younger Dryas. Perhaps the abrupt climate changes of the Younger Dryas pushed semisettled people with declining resource bases into agricultural experimentation.
Once the climate improved, groups adapted to growing grains had an advantage. Increasing reliance on domesticated crops spread across the region. The Natufian culture that flourished along the Mediterranean coast in modern Israel, Lebanon, and Syria from 9000 until 7500 BC was based on harvesting wild grain and herding goats and gazelles. Neither plants nor animals were fully domesticated when Natufian culture arose, yet by the end of the era, hunting accounted for just a fraction of the food supply.
The regional population began to grow dramatically as domestication of wheat and legumes increased food production. By about 7000 BC small farming villages were scattered throughout the region. Communities became increasingly sedentary as intensive exploitation of small areas discouraged continuing the annual cycle of moving among hunting camps scattered around a large territory. By about 6500 BC large towns of up to several thousand people became common. The seasonal rhythm of an annual trek to follow resources was over in the Middle East.
Populations able to wrest more food from their environment could better survive periods of stress-like droughts or extreme cold. When bad times came, as they inevitably did, chance favored groups with experience tending gardens. They better endured hardships and prospered during good times. And agricultural success upped the ante. Development of more intensive and effective subsistence methods allowed human populations to grow beyond what could be supported by hunting and gathering. Eventually, communities came to depend on enhancing the productivity of natural ecosystems just to stay even, let alone grow. Early cultivators became tied to a place because mobility did not allow for tending and har vesting crops. Once humanity started down the agricultural road there was no turning back.
Learning to support more people on less land once they settled into a region, farmers could always marshal greater numbers to defeat foragers in contests over territory. As their numbers grew farmers became unbeatable on their own turf. Field by field, farms expanded to cover as much of the land as could be worked with the technology of the day.
Most farm animals were domesticated from about io,ooo to 6ooo BC. My favorite exception, the dog, was brought into the human fold more than twenty thousand years earlier. I can easily imagine the scenario in which a young wolf or orphaned puppies would submit to human rule and join a pack of human hunters. Watching dogs run in Seattle's off-leash parks, I see how hunters could use dogs as partners in the hunt, especially the ones that habitually turn prey back toward the pack. In any case, dogs were not domesticated for direct consumption. There is no evidence that early people ate their first animal allies. Instead, dogs increased human hunting efficiency and probably served as sentries in early hunting camps. (Cats were relative latecomers, as they moved into agricultural settlements roughly four thousand years ago, soon after towns first overlapped with their range. As people settled their habitat, cats faced a simple choice: starve, go somewhere else, or find food in the towns. No doubt early farmers appreciated cats less for their social skills than for their ability to catch the small mammals that ate stored grain.)
Sheep were domesticated for direct consumption and economic exploitation sometime around 8ooo BC, several hundred years before domestication of wheat and barley. Goats were domesticated at about the same time in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran. It is possible that seeds for the earliest of these crops were gathered to grow livestock fodder.
Cattle were first domesticated in Greece or the Balkans about 6ooo B.C. They rapidly spread into the Middle East and across Europe. A revolutionary merger of farming and animal husbandry began when cattle reached the growing agricultural civilizations of Mesopotamia. With the development of the plow, cattle both worked and fertilized the fields. Conscription of animal labor increased agricultural productivity and allowed human populations to grow dramatically. Livestock provided labor that freed part of the agricultural population from fieldwork.
The contemporaneous development of crop production and animal husbandry reinforced each other; both allowed more food to be produced. Sheep and cattle turn parts of plants we can't eat into milk and meat. Domesticated livestock not only added their labor to increase harvests, their manure helped replenish soil nutrients taken up by crops. The additional crops then fed more animals that produced more manure and led in turn to greater harvests that fed more people. Employing ox power, a single farmer could grow far more food than needed to feed a family. Invention of the plow revolutionized human civilization and transformed Earth's surface.
There were about four million people on Earth when Europe's glaciers melted. During the next five thousand years, the world's population grew by another million. Once agricultural societies developed, humanity began to double every thousand years, reaching perhaps as many as two hundred million by the time of Christ. Two thousand years later, millions of square miles of cultivated land support almost six and a half billion people-5 to io percent of all the people who ever lived, over a thousand times more folks than were around at the end of the last glaciation.
The new lifestyle of cultivating wheat and barley and keeping domesticated sheep spread to central Asia and the valley of the Nile River. The same system spread to Europe. Archaeological records show that between 6300 and 4800 Bc adoption of agriculture spread steadily west through Turkey, into Greece, and up the Balkans at an average pace of about half a mile per year. Other than cattle, plants and animals that form the basis for European agriculture came from the Middle East.
The first farmers relied on rainfall to water their crops on upland fields. They were so successful that by about 5000 BC the human population occupied virtually the entire area of the Middle East suitable for dryland farming. The pressure to produce more food intensified because population growth kept pace with increasing food production. This, in turn, increased pressure to extract more food from the land. Not long after the first communities settled into an agricultural lifestyle, the impact of topsoil erosion and degraded soil fertility-caused by intensive agriculture and goat grazing-began to undermine crop yields. As a direct result, around 6ooo BC whole villages in central Jordan were abandoned.
When upland erosion and the growing population in the Zagros Mountains pushed agricultural communities into lowlands with inadequate rainfall to grow crops, the urgent need to cultivate these increasingly marginal areas led to a major revolution in agricultural methods: irrigation. Once farmers moved into the northern portion of the floodplain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and began irrigating their crops, they reaped bigger harvests. Digging and maintaining canals to water their fields, set Clements spread south along the floodplain, sandwiched between the Arabian Desert and semiarid mountains poorly suited for agriculture. As the population rose, small towns filled in the landscape, plowing and planting more of the great floodplain.
Figure 4. Early Mesopotamian representation of a plow from a cylinder seal (drawn from the photo of a cylinder seal rolling in Dominique Collon, First Impressions: Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987], 146, fig. 616).
This narrow strip of exceptionally fertile land produced bumper crops. But the surpluses depended upon building, maintaining, and operating the network of canals that watered the fields. Keeping the system going required both technical expertise and considerable organizational control, spawning the inseparable twins of bureaucracy and government. By about 5000 BC people with a relatively common culture in which a religious elite oversaw food production and distribution populated nearly all of Mesopotamiathe land between two rivers.
All the good, fertile land in Mesopotamia was under cultivation by 4500 Bc. There was nowhere else to expand once agriculture reached the coast. Running out of new land only intensified efforts to increase food production and keep pace with the growing population. About the time the whole floodplain came under cultivation, the plow appeared on the Sumerian plains near the Persian Gulf. it allowed greater food production from land already farmed.
Towns began to coalesce into cities. The town of Uruk (Erech) absorbed the surrounding villages and grew to about 50,000 people by 3000 BC. Construction of huge temples attests to the ability of religious leaders to marshal labor. In this initial burst of urbanization, eight major cities dom inated the southern Mesopotamian region of Sumer. The population crowding into the irrigated floodplain was now a sizable proportion of humanity. Whereas hunting and gathering groups generally regarded resources as owned by and available to all, the new agricultural era permitted an unequal ownership of land and food. The first nonfarmers had appeared.
Class distinctions began to develop once everyone no longer had to work the fields in order to eat. The emergence of religious and political classes that oversaw the distribution of food and resources led to development of administrative systems to collect food from farmers and redistribute it to other segments of society. Increasing specialization following the emergence of social classes eventually led to the development of states and governments. With surplus food, a society could feed priests, soldiers, and administrators, and eventually artists, musicians, and scholars. To this day, the amount of surplus food available to nonfarmers sets the level to which other segments of society can develop.
The earliest known writing, cuneiform indentations baked into clay tablets, comes from Uruk. Dating from about 3000 BC, thousands of such tablets refer to agricultural matters and food allocation; many deal with food rationing. Writing helped a diversifying society manage food production and distribution, as population kept pace with food production right from the start of the agricultural era.
Rivalries between cities grew along with their populations. The organization of militias reflects the concentration of wealth that militarized Mesopotamian society. Huge walls with defensive towers sprang up around cities. A six-mile-long wall circling Uruk spread fifteen feet thick. Wars between Sumerian city-states gave rise to secular military rulers who crowned themselves as the governing authority. As the new rulers appropriated land from the temples and large estates became concentrated in the hands of influential families and hereditary rulers, the concept of private property was born.
The few million acres of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers fed a succession of civilizations as the rich valley turned one conquering horde after another into farmers. Empires changed hands time and again, but unlike soils on the mountain slopes where agriculture began, the rich floodplain soil did not wash away when cleared and planted. Coalescence of Sumerian cities into the Babylonian Empire about 1800 Bc represented the pinnacle of Mesopotamian organizational development and power. This merger solidified a hierarchical civilization with formalized distinctions recognizing legal classes of nobility, priests, peasants, and slaves.
But the irrigation that nourished Mesopotamian fields carried a hidden risk. Groundwater in semiarid regions usually contains a lot of dissolved salt. Where the water table is near the ground surface, as it is in river valleys and deltas, capillary action moves groundwater up into the soil to evaporate, leaving the salt behind in the ground. When evaporation rates are high, sustained irrigation can generate enough salt to eventually poison crops. While irrigation dramatically increases agricultural output, turning sun-baked floodplains into lush fields can sacrifice long-term crop yields for short-term harvests.
Preventing the buildup of salt in semiarid soils requires either irrigating in moderation, or periodically leaving fields fallow. In Mesopotamia, centuries of high productivity from irrigated land led to increased population density that fueled demand for more intensive irrigation. Eventually, enough salt crystallized in the soil that further increases in agricultural production were not enough to feed the growing population.
The key problem for Sumerian agriculture was that the timing of river runoff did not coincide with the growing season for crops. Flow in the Tigris and Euphrates peaked in the spring when the rivers filled with snow melt from the mountains to the north. Discharge was lowest in the late summer and early fall when new crops needed water the most. Intensive agriculture required storing water through soaring summer temperatures. A lot of the water applied to the fields simply evaporated, pushing that much more salt into the soil.
Salinization was not the only hazard facing early agricultural societies. Keeping the irrigation ditches from silting up became a chief concern as extensive erosion from upland farming in the Armenian hills poured dirt into the Tigris and Euphrates. Conquered peoples like the Israelites were put to work pulling mud from the all-important ditches. Sacked and rebuilt repeatedly, Babylon was finally abandoned only when its fields became too difficult to water. Thousands of years later piles of silt more than thirty feet high still line ancient irrigation ditches. On average, silt pouring out of the rivers into the Persian Gulf has created over a hundred feet of new land a year since Sumerian time. Once a thriving seaport, the ruins of Abraham's hometown of Ur now stand a hundred and fifty miles inland.
As Sumer prospered, fields lay fallow for shorter periods due to the growing demand for food. By one estimate almost two-thirds of the thirtyfive thousand square miles of arable land in Mesopotamia were irrigated when the population peaked at around twenty million. The combination of a high load of dissolved salt in irrigation water, high temperatures during the irrigation season, and increasingly intensive cultivation pumped ever more salt into the soil.
Temple records from the Sumerian city-states inadvertently recorded agricultural deterioration as salt gradually poisoned the ground. Wheat, one of the major Sumerian crops, is quite sensitive to the concentration of salt in the soil. The earliest harvest records, dating from about 3000 BC, report equal amounts of wheat and barley in the region. Over time the proportion of wheat recorded in Sumerian harvests fell and the proportion of barley rose. Around 2500 BC wheat accounted for less than a fifth of the harvest. After another five hundred years wheat no longer grew in southern Mesopotamia.
Wheat production ended not long after all the region's arable land came under production. Previously, Sumerians irrigated new land to offset shrinking harvests from salty fields. Once there was no new land to cultivate, Sumerian crop yields fell precipitously because increasing salinization meant that each year fewer crops could be grown on the shrinking amount of land that remained in production. By 2000 BC crop yields were down by half. Clay tablets tell of the earth turning white in places as the rising layer of salt reached the surface.
The decline of Sumerian civilization tracked the steady erosion of its agriculture. Falling crop yields made it difficult to feed the army and maintain the bureaucracy that allocated surplus food. As their armies deteriorated, the independent city-states were assimilated by the younger Akkadian empire from northern Mesopotamia at the time of the first serious decline in crop yields around 2300 Bc. During the next five hundred years the region fell to a succession of conquerors. By 1800 BC crop yields were down to a third of the initial yields and southern Mesopotamia declined into an impoverished backwater of the Babylonian Empire. Salinization that destroyed the Sumerian city-states spread northward, triggering an agricultural collapse in central Mesopotamia between 1300 and 900 BC.
Mesopotamian agricultural practices also spread west into North Africa along the Mediterranean coast and into Egypt. The valley of the Nile provides a notable exception to the generality that civilizations prosper for only a few dozen generations. The first farming settlements in the Nile delta date from about 5000 BC. Farming and livestock herding gradually replaced hunting and gathering as silt carried by the river began building a broad, seasonally flooded, and exceptionally fertile delta once the postglacial sea level's rise slowed enough to let the silt pile up in one place. At first Egyptian farmers simply cast seeds into the mud as the annual flood receded, harvesting twice the amount of grain used for seed. Thousands of people died when the water drained too quickly and crops failed. So farmers started impounding water behind dikes, forcing it to sink into the rich earth. As the population grew, innovations like canals and water wheels irrigated land higher and farther from the river, allowing more people to be fed.
Figure 5. Ancient Egyptian plow (Whitney 1925).
The floodplain of the Nile proved ideal for sustained agriculture. In contrast to Sumerian agriculture's vulnerability to salinization, Egyptian agriculture fed a succession of civilizations for seven thousand years, from the ancient pharaohs through the Roman Empire and into the Arab era. The difference was that the Nile's life-giving flood reliably brought little salt and a lot of fresh silt to fields along the river each year.
The geography of the river's two great tributaries mixed up the ideal formula to nourish crops. Each year the Blue Nile brought a twentieth of an inch (about a millimeter) of silt eroded from the Abyssinian highlands. The White Nile brought humus from central Africa's swampy jungles. Fresh silt replaced mineral nutrients used by the previous crop and the influx of humus refreshed soil organic matter that decayed rapidly under the desert sun. In addition, the heavy rains that fell during June in the uplands to the south produced a flood that reliably reached the lower Nile in September and subsided in November, just the right time for planting crops. The combination produced abundant harvests year after year.
Egyptian irrigation exploited a natural process through which overflow channels spread floodwaters across the valley. Irrigating fields did not require elaborate canals; instead the river's natural levees were breached to direct water to particular places on the floodplain. After the annual flood, the water table dropped more than ten feet below the valley bottom, eliminating the threat of salinization. In contrast to the experience of Mesopotamian farmers, Egyptian wheat harvests increased over time. The longevity of Egyptian agriculture reflects a system that took advantage of the natural flood regime with minimal modification.
Fresh dirt delivered by predictable annual floods meant that fields could be kept in continuous production without compromising soil fertility. But the population was still subject to the whims of the climate. A few bad years, or even a single disastrous one, could be catastrophic. Extended drought severely reduced crop yields; a peasant revolt during one from about 2250 to 1950 BC toppled the Old Kingdom. Still, the generally reliable Nile sustained a remarkably successful agricultural endeavor.
Unlike in Mesopotamia, regulating the distribution of the river's annual floodwaters remained a local responsibility. There was little impetus for developing a centralized authority. Class distinctions and division of labor developed in Egypt only after the adoption of perennial irrigation to produce cash crops had undermined traditional village communities. The despotic political superstructure of Mesopotamia was not an inevitable result of hydraulic civilization.
Eventually, however, the agricultural surplus fueled the growth of an administrative and political elite. Egypt coalesced into a unified state about 3000 BC, developing into an ancient superpower that rivaled Mesopotamia. The rise of commercial farming not only allowed the population to grow, it meant that they had to be kept occupied. Some even suggest that the Great Pyramids were public works projects intended to combat unemployment.
Egyptian agriculture remained remarkably productive for thousands of years until people adopted new approaches out of tune with the river's natural rhythm. Desire to grow cotton for export to Europe brought aggressive year-round irrigation to the Nile in the early nineteenth century. Just as in the scenario that unfolded thousands of years earlier in Mesopotamia, salt began to build up in the soil as the water table rose below overly irrigated fields. By the i88os British agricultural expert Mackenzie Wallace described irrigated fields covered by white salts "covering the soil and glistening in the sun like untrodden snow."1 As dramatic as this spectacle appeared, the adverse effects of irrigation were dwarfed by those of damming the Nile.
In the past half century, civilization finally acquired the engineering skill to cripple an almost indestructible land. After four years of work, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev watched Soviet engineers divert the Nile in May 1964 to build the Aswan High Dam. Two and a half miles across, and more than seventeen times as massive as the Great Pyramid, the dam impounds a lake 300 miles long and 35 miles wide that can hold twice the river's annual flow.
The British hydrologists who controlled Egypt's river until the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power opposed building the dam because evaporation would send too much of the huge new lake back into the sky. Their fears were well founded. Under the desert sun six feet of water evaporates off the top of the lake each year-more than fourteen cubic kilometers of water that used to head down the river. But a greater problem was that the 130 million tons of dirt that the Nile carried off from Ethiopia settled out at the bottom of Lake Nasser.
After advancing for thousands of years since sea level stabilized, the Nile delta is now eroding, cut off from a supply of silt. Although the dam allows farmers to grow two or three crops a year using artificial irrigation, the water now delivers salt instead of silt. A decade ago salinization had already reduced crop yields from a tenth of the fields on the Nile delta. Taming the Nile disrupted the most stable agricultural environment on Earth.
As the renowned fertility of the Nile valley began to fall, agricultural output was sustained with chemical fertilizers that peasant farmers could not afford. Modern farmers along the Nile are some of the world's foremost users of chemical fertilizers-conveniently produced in new factories that are among the largest users of power generated by Nasser's dam. Now, for the first time in seven thousand years, Egypt-home of humanity's most durable garden-imports most of its food. Still, the remarkable longevity of Egyptian civilization is a primary exception to the general riseand-fall of ancient civilizations.
The history of Chinese agriculture provides another example where, as in Mesopotamia, dryland farmers from the uplands moved down onto floodplains as the population exploded. Unlike the Sumerians who appear to have treated all soils the same, the Yao dynasty (23 57-2261 Bc) based taxation on a soil survey that recognized nine distinct types of dirt. A later soil classification, dating from 500 BC, codified older ideas based on soil color, texture, moisture, and fertility.
Today, the Chinese people overwhelmingly live on the alluvial plains where great rivers descending from the Tibetan Plateau deposit much of their load of silt. Flooding has been a problem for thousands of years on the Huanghe, better known in the West as the Yellow River, a name imparted by the color of dirt eroded from the river's deforested headwaters. Before the first levees and dikes were constructed in 340 BC, the river meandered across a broad floodplain. In the second century BC the river's Chinese name changed from Great River to Yellow River when the sediment load increased tenfold as farmers began plowing up the highly erodible silty (loess) soils into the river's headwaters.
The earliest communities along the Yellow River were situated on elevated terraces along tributaries. Only later, after the area became densely populated, did people crowd onto the floodplain. Extensive levees to protect farmlands and towns along the river kept floodwaters, and the sediment they carried, confined between the levees. Where the river hit the plains, the weakening current began dropping sediment out between the levees instead of across the floodplain. Rebuilding levees ever higher to contain the floodwaters ensured that the riverbed climbed above the alluvial plain about a foot every century.
By the 19206 the surface of the river towered thirty feet above the floodplain during the high-water season. This guaranteed that any flood that breached the levees was devastating. Floodwaters released from the confines of the levees roared down onto the floodplain, submerging farms, towns, and sometimes even whole cities beneath a temporary lake. In 1852 the river jumped its dikes and flowed north, flooding cities and villages and killing millions of people before draining out hundreds of miles to the north. More than two million people drowned or died in the resulting famine when the river breached its southern dike and submerged the province of Henan during the flood of 1887-89. With the river flowing high above its floodplain, levee breaches are always catastrophic.
Soil erosion in northern China grabbed international attention when a withering drought killed half a million people in 1920-2-i. Some twenty million people were reduced to eating literally anything that grew from the soil. In some areas starving people stripped the landscape down to bare dirt. The ensuing erosion triggered mass migrations when fields blew away. But this was not unusual. A ig2os famine-relief study documented that famine had occurred in some part of China during each of the previous two thousand years.
In 1922 forester and Rhodes scholar Walter Lowdermilk took a job at the University of Nanking to work on famine prevention in China. Touring the country, he deduced how soil abuse had influenced Chinese society. The experience impressed upon him the fact that soil erosion could crip ple civilizations. Years later, after traveling widely to study soil erosion in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, Lowdermilk described his profession as reading "the record which farmers, nations, and civilizations have written in the land.' 12
Approaching the site where the Yellow River broke through its dikes in 1852, Lowdermilk described how a huge flat-topped hill rose fifty feet above the alluvial plain to dominate the horizon. Climbing up to this elevated plain inside the river's outer levee, Lowdermilk's party traversed seven miles of raised land before coming to the inner dike and then the river itself. Over thousands of years, millions of farmers armed with baskets full of dirt walled in and gradually raised four hundred miles of the river above its floodplain and delta. Seeing the muddy yellowish water, Lowdermilk realized that the heavy load of silt eroded from the highlands began to settle out when the river's slope dropped to less than one foot per mile. The more silt built up the riverbed, the faster farmers raised the dikes. There was no winning this game.
Determined to find the source of the dirt filling in the river, Lowdermilk traveled upstream to the province of Shansi (Shanxi), the cradle of Chinese civilization. There in northwestern China he found a landscape deeply incised by gullies, where intensive cultivation after clearing of forests from steep, highly erodible slopes was sending the soil downstream. Lowdermilk was convinced that deforestation alone would not cause catastrophic erosion-shrubs and then trees simply grew back too fast. Instead, farmers cultivating steep slopes left the soil vulnerable to erosion during intense summer downpours. "Erosion is only indirectly related to the destruction of the former extensive forests, but is directly related to the cultivation of the slope lands for the production of food crops."
Rather than the axe, the plow had shaped the region's fate, as Lowdermilk observed. "Man has no control over topography and little over the type of rainfall which descends on the land. He can, however, control the soil layer, and can, in mountainous areas, determine quite definitely what will become of it."3 Lowdermilk surmised how the early inhabitants of the province cleared the forest from easily tilled valley bottoms. Farms spread higher up the slopes as the population grew; Lowdermilk even found evidence for abandoned fields on the summits of high mountains. Viewing the effects of farming the region's steep slopes, he concluded that summer rains could strip fertile soil from bare, plowed slopes in just a decade or two. Finding abundant evidence for abandoned farms on slopes through out the region, he concluded that the whole region had been cultivated at some time in the past. The contrast of a sparse population and extensive abandoned irrigation systems told of better days gone by.
Lowdermilk had first recognized the impact of people on the lands of northern China at a virtually abandoned walled city in the upper Fen River valley. Surveying the surrounding land, he discerned how the first inhabitants occupied a forested landscape blanketed by fertile soil. As the population prospered and the town grew into a city, the forest was cleared and fields spread from the fertile valley bottoms up the steep valley walls. Topsoil ran off the newly cleared farms pushing up the mountain sides. Eventually, goats and sheep grazing on the abandoned fields stripped the remaining soil from the slopes. Soil erosion so undercut agricultural productivity that the people either starved or moved, abandoning the city.
Lowdermilk estimated than a foot of topsoil had been lost from hundreds of millions of acres of northern China. He found exceptions where Buddhist temples protected forests from clearing and cultivation; there the exceptionally fertile forest soil was deep black, rich in humus. Lowdermilk described how farmers were clearing the remaining unprotected forest to farm this rich dirt, breaking up sloping ground with mattocks to disrupt tree roots and allow plowing. At first, plowing smoothed over new rills and gullies, but every few years erosion pushed farmers farther into the forest in search of fresh soil. Seeing how colonizing herbs and shrubs shielded the ground as soon as fields were abandoned, Lowdermilk blamed the loss of the soil on intensive plowing followed by overgrazing. He concluded that the region's inhabitants were responsible for impoverishing themselvesjust too slowly for them to notice.
Over the next three years, Lowdermilk measured erosion rates from protected groves of trees, on farm fields, and from fields abandoned because of erosion. He found that runoff and soil erosion on cultivated fields were many times greater than under the native forest. Farmers in the headwaters of the Yellow River were increasing the river's naturally high sediment load, exacerbating flooding problems for people living downstream.
Today the cradle of Chinese civilization is an impoverished backwater lacking fertile topsoil, just like Mesopotamia and the Zagros Mountains. Both of these ancient civilizations started off farming slopes that lost soil, and then blossomed when agriculture spread downstream to floodplains that could produce abundant food if cultivated.
Another commonality among agricultural societies is that the majority of the population lives harvest-to-harvest with little to no hedge against crop failure. Throughout history, our growing numbers kept pace with agricultural production. Good harvests tended to set population size, making a squeeze inevitable during bad years. Until relatively recently in the agricultural age, this combination kept whole societies on the verge of starvation.
For over 99 percent of the last two million years, our ancestors lived off the land in small, mobile groups. While certain foods were likely to be in short supply at times, it appears that some food was available virtually all the time. Typically, hunting and gathering societies considered food to belong to all, readily shared what they had, and did not store or hoardegalitarian behavior indicating that shortages were rare. If more food was needed, more was found. There was plenty of time to look. Anthropologists generally contend that most hunting and gathering societies had relatively large amounts of leisure time, a problem few of us are plagued with today.
Farming's limitation to floodplains established an annual rhythm to early agricultural civilizations. A poor harvest meant death for many and hunger for most. Though most of us in developed countries are no longer as directly dependent on good weather, we are still vulnerable to the slowly accumulating effects of soil degradation that set the stage for the decline of once-great societies as populations grew to exceed the productive capacity of floodplains and agriculture spread to the surrounding slopes, initiating cycles of soil mining that undermined civilization after civilization.