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The Agricultural Origins of Urban Civilization

Final Report Summary - AGRICURB (The Agricultural Origins of Urban Civilization)

The AGRICURB project investigated how farmers adjusted to the demands of early forms of urbanization that emerged in western Eurasia from the seventh to the first millennia BC. Early cities in our study regions – northern Mesopotamia (present-day Syria), central Anatolia (Turkey), Crete, mainland Greece and south-west Germany – emerged at different times, under varying ecological conditions and in contrasting forms. However, societies in all of these regions faced the challenge of increasing and mobilizing agricultural production to support the more centralized and unequal urban systems that variously arose following the establishment of agriculture incorporating domesticated plants and animals. Our results show that these early urban societies depended to varying degrees on the extensification of cereal production (i.e. expansive, low-input cultivation), overturning prevailing theories of agricultural ‘intensification’. In its most radical form, expansive, land-hungry agriculture – dependent on the efficiencies of labour-saving technologies such as specialized draught oxen – promoted dependence on a narrow range of relatively stress-tolerant crops. Moreover, land and draught animals constituted material wealth that could be monopolized, ramping up social inequality. The narrow ecological base of extensive cereal production made early urban centres vulnerable to collapse under changing climatic and/or political conditions. Resilience through these episodes depended instead on diverse, intensive and small-scale cultivation at the household level that co-existed with elite-sponsored extensive cereal production. Our results have fundamental implications not only for understanding the emergence and decline of early cities, but also for the design of future urban agrosystems and food security. We can demonstrate, for example, that the most sustainable social and agricultural systems were those based on a diverse crop spectrum encompassing varying ecological tolerances and requirements, with permeability amongst relatively equal social groups enabling successful experimentation and innovation to be scaled up to the wider community.