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Going to the goats.

Going to the goats

Human activities, not climate change, forced the widespread abandonment of Neolithic villages in the western Fertile Crescent around 6000 B.C., propose Gary O. Rollefson and Ilse Kohler-Rollefson of San Diego State University.

For years, anthropologists and archaeologists blamed the abandonments on reduced rainfall that made farming impossible in the region. But excavations at three sites in the north-south-trending hills of Jordan show these communities continued to flourish until around 5000 B.C. "So rainfall couldn't explain the abandonment, because these three sites and two discovered but not excavated continued to exist and thrive, and they share the same weather patterns" with the abandoned villages, Rollefson says. The San Diego researchers explored two of the sites, 'Ain Ghazal and Waei Shu'eib, with Alan H. Simmons of the University of Nevada-Reno and Zeidan Kafafi of Yarmouk University in Jordan. A German team from the Free University of Berlin excavated the third village, Basta.

In work completed last summer at 'Ain Ghazal, located near Amman, Rollefson and his co-workers found the village's population peaked at about 2,800 around 6000 B.C. and remained at that level for another 10 centuries. At its largest, 'Ain Ghazal's buildings covered 30 to 40 acres.

The researchers blame plaster floors and grazing goats for the widespread abandonments. The plaster floors, a common feature of buildings in the area, needed lime made by heating limestone with a would fire. By their calculations, each house at 'Ain Ghazal required burning six oak trees for plaster and felling four oaks for beams. Over hundreds of years, "this is a drain of an awful lot of trees," Rollefson says. Villagers also kept large goat herds, which prevented natural reforestation by eating emerging seedlings.

"As the goats continued eating the seedlings and brush, the soil itself deteriorated and eroded," Rollefson says. By 6000 B.C., the land available for farming on the plains lay too far off for a comfortable daily walk, and the villagers abandoned their homes to establish hamless of typically 10 families each, Rollefson says.

Their hilly locations saved 'Ain Ghazal and its Jordan neighbors for another 1,000 years, he adds. Between November and May, the plains below received enough water from seasonally flowing rivers for villagers to graze their goats there, thus slowing damage around the village. But in the end, these villagers, too, lost their land and had to disperse to new homes.
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Title Annotation:Neolithic history of the Fertile Crescent
Author:Young, Patrick
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 3, 1990
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