The Mesopotamians Southwest Asia 3700 bce to 1600 bce

The first known case of ecological collapse of a civilization occurred during the Bronze Age, several thousand years ago, in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq and part of Syria. This Mesopotamian culture, known as the Sumerian civilization (3500-1600 bce), was one of the first human societies to have produced what some archaeologists refer to as "big tradition."47 Mesopotamian civilizations utterly depended on irrigation from the two great rivers. With an assured water supply and the invention of the plow, early sedentary agriculturists could grow much more food than they needed for their own kin group. The availability of surplus grain opened the door not only to the development of cities but, in time, also to social inequality and stratification.48 However, the exploitation of land and people by means of irrigation led to disastrous results over the centuries: dams and canals silted up, and the land became infertile due to waterlogging and salt accumulation. Even today's societies, with the most modern technologies, find it difficult to prevent such deterioration of the soil, as farmers from California to the Aral Sea know only too well.

Settlement in the Tigris-Euphrates valley dates back to at least 6000 bce. Like the Egyptian civilizations later, first settlers in Mesopotamia developed a hunting economy, supplemented by harvesting of wild grain.49 Indeed, the culinary achievements of the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians are very similar. Cheese, butter, and buttermilk enriched the palate of the upper classes in both societies. The great gardens of Babylonia, some of them raised on terraces, harbored many of the vegetables that were later to become staples of the Western kitchen, such as carrots and fennel. Though quantities of Mesopotamia's river fish were not equal to those of Egypt, there were plenty of birds to be caught in the marshes between the rivers. Long-tailed sheep grazed in the fertile marshes between the rivers of Babylon. Grapevines grew abundantly, but the consumption of wine was usually limited to the rich.50

The oldest city in the region was Eridu, suggested to have been the original site of the biblical "Garden of Eden." Other city-states, including Ur, Lagash, Nippur, and Kish, were also founded around the same time. These early city-states were ruled by priest-kings who were elected by the people. Later changes in the constellation of social power allowed rulers to assume the throne through birthright. In short, early Mesopotamian civilization was a loose collection of agricultural city-states that developed into centrally controlled empires.

Mesopotamia lacked protection by natural boundaries, encouraging constant migrations of semi-nomadic Indo-European people from areas located between the Black and the Caspian seas. The influence of neighboring countries and regions was great. Military expeditions occurred frequently after the harvest, when the farmers were available as soldiers, and thus warfare contributed to the movements of people in this region. These constant migrations led to cultural diffusion, a process whereby an existing society adopts the traits of another and the two eventually merge to produce a new culture.51

Mesopotamia's cultural heritage, religious-mythological systems, and scientific accomplishments are of great significance to the formation of the modern world. Sumerians invented the wheel in about 3700 bce; they also developed a system of mathematics based on the number 60 that became the basis for measuring time in the modern world. They formulated the earliest concepts of algebra and geometry, and their system of weights and measures was used in the ancient world until the Roman period. In addition, the Sumerians mapped many of the celestial constellations in great detail.

Social historian Karl Wittfogel coined the term "oriental despotism" when describing the tributary and slave-based mode of production in Mesopotamia.52 The upper classes consisted of nobles, priests, government officials, and warriors. Merchants ranked below, followed by traders and artisans, who made up a thin middle or "freeman" class. Serfs, slaves, and subsistence farmers made up the majority of the population and were responsible for all manual labor, most importantly the agricultural labor necessary for building and cleaning the irrigation canals, dams, and reservoirs. The high yields produced by Mesopotamia's irrigation-based agricultural system made possible the freeing of up to 10 per cent of the population from agricultural work.53

Ownership of agricultural land was divided among private individuals, temples, and the state.54 Typically, peasants rented land from a temple, which controlled it on behalf of the gods. Land under temple or state ownership was cultivated, and a portion of the produce was provided as remuneration to the different classes of state personnel.55 An important later development in Mesopotamian city-states was the extension of the concept of ownership to apply not only to land, material objects, and animals but also to other humans. The practice of slavery was pervasive. Most slaves were captured during raids into the hills flanking the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, but others were taken in the frequent scuffles between the cities.56 The concept of ownership even came to apply to the members of a married man's family. In Ur, for example, a man could avoid bankruptcy - that is, he could avoid being sold into slavery - by selling his wife or children in order to pay off his debts.57

The combination of organized and hierarchical exploitation of human labor and a productive environment over time created a distinctive and potent mode of production which transformed nature so completely that almost nothing remains today of the original alluvial landscape.58 Nature, in other words, became progressively "humanized." With the Pleistocene megafauna largely extinct, the social formation of early Mesopotamian civilizations led to the extermination of much of what remained of larger mammal species and birds. As usual, the first species to go were those that represented a threat to existence for early humans in the newly colonized territories, for example, large predators such as lions and tigers. Impressions taken from southern Mesopotamian cylinder seals show a hairy image of the deity Endiku, Gilgamesh's companion, holding up two vanquished lions.59 Other wildlife once flourishing in the region, but now regionally extinct, include the rhinoceros, the elephant, and some species of antelope.

Mesopotamia's irrigated agriculture became increasingly vulnerable, as it was critically dependent upon a "good flood." Waters cresting too high would destroy settlements and grain stores; waters too low would yield poor crops, food shortages, and famine. Moreover, there always lurked the threat of river and irrigation channels changing their course, which occurred periodically as sedimentation raised the height of diversion canals. Most of the water carried by the Tigris and Euphrates never reached the sea, but evaporated in the flat alluvial marshlands. This led to another problem, that of saliniza-tion. As river water evaporated, it left behind its mineral contents, leading to increasingly saline soils. These soils reduced crop yields and eventually made cultivation impossible.60

Initially, Mesopotamians kept salinization at bay by alternating years of cultivation and allowing weeds to grow during the fallow years. The practice lowered the level of saline groundwater. However, it did not provide a permanent solution. Carbonized grains and textual sources prove that Mesopotamians were forced to switch from the cultivation of wheat to more salt-tolerant barley. Eventually even barley yields declined, and there is frequent mention in Sumerian texts of land abandonment due to saliniza-tion. The resulting agro-ecological crisis was instrumental in bringing about a switch in political power from southern to northern Mesopotamia, where saline soils were less prevalent.61

In discussing the decline of agricultural production at the end of the Ur III period in 2100 bce, Robert Adams concludes that an abundance of water provided by an expanded canal system led to over-irrigation, shortened fallow cycles, and salinization.62 However, the eventual collapse of Mesopotamian civilization was not simply a matter of the inherent instability of hydraulic irrigation agriculture. Extensive deforestation over millennia in a region known for its extensive cedar forests contributed to an ecological degradation that was heightened by the ecological impoverishment stemming from the secondary effects of soil erosion and siltation. The precise effect of deforestation on the biodiversity and flourishing of wildlife of the region remains unclear, but it is reasonable to suggest that it must have been extensive.

Deforestation has a long history in a region once known for its extensive cedar forests. Archaeological work indicates that deforestation was a factor in the collapse of an even earlier sedentary Neolithic community in the Near East region. According to Anne and Paul Ehrlich, Mesopotamian civilization was heading for an ecological catastrophe from the outset.63 For example, there is ample evidence that deforestation caused the collapse of communities in the southern Levant as early as 6000 bce.64 Environmental historian

Richard Grove observes that this collapse "may well have been related not to climatic change but to the effect of human activities on the environment." In particular, trees were used as fuel for the production of lime plaster as a building material. Environmental damage in this instance was also exacerbated by herds of goats eating seedlings, saplings, and shrubs, thereby preventing re-growth and exposing steep hillsides to rapid soil erosion.65

Militarization and imperial endeavors also played a major role in the destruction of Mesopotamia's primary forests. The progressive deforestation of the region was closely correlated with the steadily growing capacity of Mesopotamian states to consume timber both for construction and for military purposes, in particular for naval shipbuilding.66 Massive quantities of wood were also required for commercial shipbuilding, bronze and pottery manufacturing, and building construction, including palaces and administrative offices.67 Thus, environmental sociologist Sing Chew argues that the crisis in agricultural productivity has to be understood within a wider context of the political-economic and ecological relations of Mesopotamia. The stratified centers of Mesopotamia pursued intensive socioeconomic activities to produce a surplus for domestic consumption as well as for export (in the form of grains and woolen textiles) to the Persian Gulf and beyond. The scale and intensity of economic activity required extensive deforestation, maximal utilization of agriculture, and animal husbandry. Furthermore, with a state structure requiring tax payments, the farmers were required to produce increasing surpluses to meet the reproductive needs of the system.68 Population increases led to state policies of establishing new towns that engaged in a range of economic practices requiring heightened utilization of resources. The end result was an intensification of agricultural production that pushed the ecological sustainability of the lands to the limit.69

Around 4,400 years ago, the city-states of ancient Sumer faced an unsettling dilemma. Farmland was gradually accumulating salt, the byproduct of evaporating irrigation water. Almost imperceptibly, the salt began to poison the rich soil, and over time harvests tapered off. Until 2400 bce, Sumerians had managed the problem of dwindling yields by cultivating new land (reclamation-works), thereby producing the consistent food surpluses needed to support their armies and bureaucracies. But within a few centuries, they had reached the limits of agricultural expansion. The accumulating salts drove crop yields down more than 40 per cent, resulting in shrinking food reserves for an ever-increasing population. Sumerian agriculture effectively collapsed in 1600 bce, causing this once glorious civilization to fade into obscurity.70

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