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Managing Risk in Early Complex Societies in Syria-Palestine: An Investigation of Changing Animal Herding Strategies through the 4th-2nd Millennia BC Using Multi-Element Isotopic Analysis

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Did sheep kick off the rise of city states in prehistoric Syria?

The rise of urban societies depends on new economic opportunities. The MRECS project asked whether sheep may have been behind a vast new livestock-based economy in Ancient Syria.

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The 3rd millennium BCE saw the rise of city states in western Syria, populated by the first elites. But how did society evolve from a subsistence existence to, for a lucky few, a life of luxury? What was the mechanism behind such a shift and did pastoral mobility play a role in the rise of urban societies? The MRECS project provides some interesting insight. Along with traces of urbanisation, the period also offers the first evidence of wealthy individuals. “This means that the whole economic basis of society had to change in order to create the substantial surpluses, think ‘wealth’, that were required to support the needs of royalty, new state bureaucrats, a growing military and the conspicuous consumption that all of these require,” explains Graham Philip, professor in the department of archaeology at Durham University, United Kingdom and MRECS project supervisor. These state entities were underpinned by highly integrated economies designed to maximise the productivity of their landscapes. “During the 4th-3rd millennium BCE, we see a shift from flax as the primary fibre used in textile production, to a focus on wool. The decline of flax freed up areas of land that would previously have been devoted to its cultivation, increasing land available for production of staple agricultural crops,” says Lynn Welton, formerly a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at Durham University, and now research associate at the University of Toronto.

High stakes gamble

Compared to more risk-averse, subsistence-level strategies that might have been practiced at a small-scale community level, the MRECS project believes the shift towards sheep and wool production represented a greater level of risk. “Presumably societies were motivated to tolerate risk by the opportunities for short-term rewards,” notes Welton. Droughts would have been the factor that could have hit an economy based on wool production the hardest. The environment in the steppe region is unpredictable, and short-term fluctuations in precipitation that affected the pasture resources necessary to maintain flocks would have had serious implications for the sustainability of these large herd sizes. As Welton points out, short-term droughts would have been a significant risk to the accumulation of wealth in the form of animal herds, and to the continued functioning of the prestige economy that relied on textile production. Although, as Philip adds, this could have been mitigated to some extent by spreading herds across a large area. What physical traces of these ancient flocks remain to testify to these interpretations? “Roughly speaking, skeletal remains of the animals give up carbon data that tells us the types of vegetation eaten. It reveals the oxygen in their drinking water and the vegetation they ate. Strontium reveals the geology of the lands on which they grazed. “Because of the way enamel is laid down in caprine teeth, isotopic values for these three elements can chart their movement across different landscapes throughout their lifetime – in particular across an annual round. So we can tell where animals were likely to have been grazing at different points in their life cycle,” explains Philip.

Measuring change needs a baseline

Welton considered samples from two case studies: the north Jordan Valley in modern Jordan – the archaeological sites of Tell esh-Shuna and Pella – and the upper Orontes Valley in modern Syria – the site of Tell Nebi Mend, located near modern Homs. In this timeframe, Syria sees the growth of complex state-level societies, while the Jordan Valley does not – and so acts as a kind of control on the Syrian dataset. “These case studies were selected because the relevant collections are accessible and because the two regions represent contrasting trajectories of social and cultural development during the period we’re interested in,” Welton says. MRECS was interested to see if the emergence of early states markedly changed the nature of animal management strategies. In particular, would they see evidence that animals recovered from the major sites in western Syria had been grazed in the steppe zone? In fact the results were surprising. The grazing zones identified in western Syria were more limited in extent than the project had anticipated. Perhaps, in part, this could be due to an expansion of the animal herding economy which may have introduced greater competition, and a need to more carefully control access to animal grazing territories and associated water resources. If so, this may, explains Welton, have constrained the movements of herders. “We suspect that had we been able to include animals from large sites closer to the steppe than Nebi Mend, of which there are several, the picture would have been more nuanced. But as the animal remains from these sites are all currently in Syria, this is a project for the future!” Philip adds.


MRECS, Syria, sheep, urbanisation, livestock-based economy, isotopic values, bone, enamel, economy, state entities

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