The discovery of agriculture and the first written language:  cuneiform

by Bruce Magnotti

The discovery of agriculture and the first written language, Cuneiform, began in tribal groups of the Mesopotamian Valley less than 10,000 years ago.  Many theories have been written concerning the reasons humans might settle into agrarian villages.  The discovery and development of agriculture, the storage of food, and the evolution of city-states all seemed to follow a logical order of development.

Prior to these developments, humans, arranged in tribal groups, lived for many years just as bears and apes; finding shelter, weathering seasons and storms, and hunting and gathering a daily food supply.  Evidence suggests that these tribes traveled throughout a defined territory in order to follow the food supply and avoid inclement environmental conditions.  Spring in the Mesopotamian Valley, for example, brought floods caused by snow melt in the Turkish mountains.

An event or series of events transformed humans into the technologically reliant brings we call civilized humans today.  At least symbolically, we left the natural world to reside in a world of our own creation.  We drive cars and trucks, ride in jets and trains, live and work in homes and buildings.  We use money as exchange, we grow, process and store most of our food, we rely on governments to care for us when we are ill or aged, for protection against domestic and foreign enemies.  We mine and forest, drill and pump the resources of the earth to benefit our cities and countries.

Most of the oldest historical records designate the geographical area near the Persian Gulf for the earliest of these developments; written language, agriculture, architecture, and transportation.  The Babylonian historian Berossus, the Hebrew writings in the  Bible, the Hindu writings in the Koran, the ancient cylinders and clay tiles found in the earliest known cities, all discuss this small geographical area as the cradle of civilization.  The Garden of Eden, the cities built by Cain's sons, the site of Noah's deluge, the travels of Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac whose progeny inhabit this area to this day, all were located or occurred in the Persian Gulf area.

During archaeological studies I visited many Native American settlements and camps in the Northwest U.S.  I observed in most of the sites in Washington State, that in each camp there would be a large mortar or metate, often, in undisturbed sites, I found pestles and many other "kitchen" utensils.  The "wandering" tribes would return yearly to the same seasonal camps.  The size and weight of these kitchen instruments demanded that they be left behind and these sites, usually by the source of water, became the kitchen each years when the humans returned.

Many writers have discussed the development of building bricks and the relationship to the discovery of fire and the subsequent heat preparation of food.  Pliable clay mud from river banks, formed into fire pits and ovens were transformed into a hard and strong substance that became the building blocks of the first Sumerian cities.

I am assuming that the early nomadic tribes of Mesopotamia had similar habits when I extrapolate that their "kitchen" sites may have remained static in their seasonal camps.  Hunters and gatherers for the tribes would collect foodstuffs and return to camp to the "kitchen" areas for processing.  Nuts and seeds, grains and beans, fruit and vegetables as well as meats would be processed and distributed from these kitchen sites.

It is probable that a few of these gathered grains and berries prepared in this kitchen may have fallen on the ground during preparation.  As the yearly alluvial soils were deposited over these seeds, it seems also probable that these kitchen areas often became kitchen gardens as well, where many of the imported grains and seeds began growing of their own accord.  After years and years it is probable the one or more of the early chefs noticed that the grains and fruits that were growing in this kitchen garden were the same as those gathered for food the prior year.

The fallen grain from the previous year, sprouting under a freshly deposited layer of alluvial soil, told a story to this chef and may have led to the eventual discovery and development of agriculture as a way of life.  Planting seeds and grains probably became more of a hobby at first and our chefs probably forgot what was planted the previous year.  It is also probable that they may, over a course of time, made marks in the soil where the rows or blocks were purposefully planted.  This may have been human's first attempts at written language, in fact the impressions of a simple stylus in variant combinations became the cuneiform of our earliest writing forms.

Unfortunately, these marks were, more often than not, erased with the flooding of the plain each spring or obscured with the same alluvial soils that covered the seeds originally.  And so a more permanent marking solution may have been devised using the clay from oven building.  Small tablets of clay may have been impressed with pertinent marks, fired in the cooking fires, and then set into the soil near the planted seeds.

Many of the artifacts found in the Sumerian plains are small clay tablets with cuneiform writing on both sides.  These are small tiles, inches wide and inches in length.  Some have been interpreted as invoices for barley purchases and other business transactions.

Hence, the following progression is proposed:

Human nomadic hunting and gathering tribes
Discovery of fire
Beginnings of food preparation
Creation of food preparation tools
Discovery of brick and pottery
Discovery of agricultural principles
Attempts to demarcate plantings
Use of crude cuneiform marks
Use of bricks to permanize markings
Agriculture encouraged stable economies
Sedentary villages established
Protection of villages required sophisticated weapons
Further development of bricks encouraged more sophisticated buildings, man made higher ground in the Mesopotamian Valley
Development of larger, more secure settlements.
 
 

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