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Agriculture as known by many serves as an occupation, business or a hobby in order to sustain the life of humans. It entails all that is seen from farming (cultivation and production of crops) to keeping of animals and fishery. For years, the beginning of agriculture has been wandered by a great number of humans but as agreed by many, hunting and gathering was probably the first main means of survival. This has led many researchers into the task of trying to find how it really started. To conduct this research at a more accurate state, they have to go back to the first areas of civilization. The Middle East or mainly the old Mesopotamian region is probably where agriculture started. The existence of agriculture their according to encyclopedia Britannica can be traced back as far as the eighth or ninth millennium BC (Britannica, 63) with evidences from Palestine going back to nine thousand and seven thousand BC. The existence of agricultural activities in the region was supported by the two main rivers that gave the region its name. These rivers are the Tigris which started from the Taurus Mountains and also the second river Euphrates. These rivers provided water for basic human needs as well as a means for transportation in some time. The rivers also served as a water source during the irrigation period of the Mesopotamian farmers.
Still talking about agriculture's origin, there are currently three main hypotheses that define the existence of agriculture. According to the author of "First Civilizations: Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt" the first hypotheses is that of the historian Gordon Childe which is termed as the "oasis hypothesis". The second main hypotheses is that of the nuclear zone while the third is termed population pressure which results from the works of Canadians Phillip Smith and T. Cuyler Young. In the entire three hypotheses presented, at least one major cause was being mentioned (Chadwick, 25). He went on to explain how each of the different hypothesis presented their main cause even though what were mentioned did not provide real facts to how agriculture started.
Different periods of time in the Mesopotamian region were taken into consideration to explain the origin and development of agriculture. The origin of agriculture can be traced back to the foot hills of the Zagros Mountains in nowadays Kurdistan. This region has an ample supply of rainfall as of that time. At this place different mini settlements were found. These settlements have in them traces of food grains such as wheat and barley grew wild. Also domesticated animals like sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were found (Cradle, 13). Apart from the grains and animals found, well dug canals which were probably used for the supply of water to crops during the irrigation period. The earliest reasonable evidence to the existence of agriculture can be traced back to the Hassuna period around sixth millennium BC (Americana, 737). Alongside grains, some bones of domesticated animals were found in these settlements.
Robert J. Braidwood of the University of Chicago visited Qalat Jarmo around 1946 and then went back with his team in 2 years later with his team to carry out excavations (Cradle, 13). During this period of archeological excavations, Braidwood came across many things including pre-ceramic level of human occupation. Also discovered was mound heap of carbonized wheat which was found to be of two different forms. The two versions of the weed grown were named as the emmer and the einkorn. Another crop found during the excavation process was the barley and also several forms of beans and peas. Alongside the different grains found in the region, animal bones were discovered which can be traced to domesticated animals like gazelle, wild ass, goats and sheep. Snail shells, acorns and pistachios with other wild animal bones were also found there (Sumer, 62; 72).
The land in Mesopotamia is a fertile soil that supports the growth of crops easily. The soil along the river banks provides a nutritious alluvial soil for the crops. This facilitated the continuous use of farming for food supplies in the region. Even with this advantage, the Mesopotamian farmers encountered the problem of rain scarcity. The rains in the region were gradually reducing which means the crops don't get enough water. The Mesopotamian farmers had to result to use of irrigation. According to Tom B. author of "Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture":
"The methods of the Sumerian farmer indicate that the land of Sumer and Akkad in the third millennium B. C. was plagued by the same aridity which exists in southern Iraq today. The country was virtually uninhabitable without a highly organized and carefully directed agricultural system involving the control of labor, the development of irrigation, and the invention of special tools and methods for cultivation."(Jones, 50)
The aridity of the lands pressured the farmers into the use of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for irrigation. During the irrigation process, the Euphrates was probably the main river used for the irrigation use. The river provided enough water even with the absence of water storage systems and other water lifting or pumping devices (Adams, 330). The rivers provide fertile alluvial soil at their banks which provide a good cultivation ground. Farms near the river banks do not need a heavy architectural design to get water from the rivers. So it was easy for farmers near the rivers to just dig canals, tunnels and ditches or just mere wide gaps through to the farms. Other farmers that were quite far away from the rivers needed serious planning to have water from the rivers to their farms. Excavations made by researchers like Braidwood found canals that were formally used along the river sites. A problem encountered by the farmers was the control of the flow of water. It was an issue that the Mesopotamians did not realize how to deal with at a very early stage. The control of the flow needed serious planning as well as the maintenance of the canals and ditches dug. Another problem encountered by the farmers is the salinization of the soil, the encouraged usage of the system and the constant increase in the volume of water intensified the impact of soil salinization (Adams, 332). Salt accumulation from the rivers resulted in the decline of the farming activities in Mesopotamia (Willcocks, 10). Another problem encountered as written by Robert McC. Adams in "Strategies of Maximization, Stability and Resilience in Mesopotamian Society, Settlement, and Agriculture." was a coincidence of the need for irrigation so as to help out in supply of water for the crops after the planting stage of farming (Adams, 330). Well over 50,000 square kilometers of land was being used irrigation agriculture as the people depended mostly on the cultivation cereals in the area. This was attained by the use of the alluvial land surface brought about by the canals of the Sasanians (Adams, 332). The irrigation system provided a means of survival for the people there as that was the major way for the people to get their food supplies. Also, as the population of the people in the region grew, farmers were able to sell their outputs which served as a source of income to the. With the new cash in hand, the can be able to buy farming tools, potteries as well as other needed resources which will be of use to them. Meanwhile, William Willcocks stated:
"All the canals taking water from the Euphrates which had come down from a remote antiquity, the Issa, Sarsar, Melcha, Kutha, Araktu, Surat, Nil, and Nars, silted up and ceased running; and finally in our day the Euphrates of Babylon has dwindled into an insignificant stream, and the whole of the waters of the river are flowing through the Nejef marshes. The Tigris and Euphrates, left to themselves, have deserted the high lands which they irrigated in old days, and are now traversing the lowlands and marshes along the extreme east and west of the delta." (Willcocks, 9)
The irrigations system success in the provision of water for usage was now being shadowed by its uprising disadvantages. The irrigation system left the soil with more than enough minerals that instead of promoting plants growth it just harms the crops. The minerals left in the soil by the irrigation use can only be washed away by rainfall, but unfortunately Mesopotamia is experiencing a serious lack of rainfall.
Over the years, the focus of agriculture has been based on the production of food only. According to Zeder, "â€¦while there are certain universal elements in the origins of food production, each instance of the incorporation of domestic resources in to the subsistence economy is shaped by highly localized social and natural forces." (Zeder, 97). Another area or section of agriculture is animal rearing. As said above, the people of Mesopotamia kept domestic animals in their homes. Bones of both domestic and wild animals were both found in former settlements of the Mesopotamians by researchers like Braidwood and Frank Hole of Yale University. According to Zeder, during the Halafian period three main categories of domesticated animals was evident though the majority of the bones were that of wild animals. The domesticated species are pigs, sheep and goats following excavations made at a settlement known as Umm Qseir (Zeder, 102). The other animal bones found were of Gazelle, onager, Bos, Deer, Hare, Birds, reptiles, hyena, fox and many other wild animals. As irrigation was talked about before, the scarcity of rain meant that there was no enough grass for the domesticated animals. The farmers now have to rely of forage from the results of their irrigation farming. Richard Zettler pointed out that:
"The period during which the animals have to be grain fed can be shortened to two or three months for those with land on the edge of the marsh or with irrigated ground. The lack of sufficient pasturage, especially in the fall, which results in prolonged and costly supplemental feeding of animals, provides a major limitation on the growth of sheep herds." (Zettler, 33)
In conclusion, agriculture has been of great importance to the people of Mesopotamia and the whole world. Though its development in Mesopotamia has been hindered a bit by the scarcity of rainfall, the people were smart enough to engage in irrigation farming to use as support for their farming. Though the use of the system was excellent at first, the control of water flow was the main problem at first then the irrigation system brought about the salinization of the fertile soil which resulted in the decline of Mesopotamia's farming. Even with these problems, the system provided food supplies for the people and also a means of income. The domestication of animals also was evident though keeping the animals was a little harder due to the scarcity of food.