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Tell Abu Hureyra

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Tell Abu Hureyra (Arabic: تل أبو هريرة‎) is an archaeological site in the Euphrates valley in modern Syria. The remains of the villages within the tell come from over 4,000 years of pre-ceramic habitation spanning the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic periods. Ancient Abu Hureyra was occupied between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago in radio carbon years. The site is significant because the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra started out as hunter-gatherers, but gradually moved to farming, making them the earliest known farmers in the world.[1]

Tell Abu Hureyra
تل أبو هريرة
Tell Abu Hureyra is located in Syria
Tell Abu Hureyra
Shown within Syria
LocationRaqqa Governorate, Syria.
RegionLake Assad
Coordinates35°51′58″N 38°24′00″E / 35.866°N 38.400°E / 35.866; 38.400
Foundedc. 9,500 BCE
Abandonedc. 5,000 BCE
CulturesNatufian culture
Site notes
Excavation dates1972—1973
ArchaeologistsAndrew Moore, Gordon Hillman, Anthony Legge
Conditionflooded by Lake Assad


History of researchEdit

The site was excavated as a rescue operation before it was flooded by Lake Assad, the reservoir of the Tabqa Dam which was being built at that time. The site was excavated by Andrew Moore in 1972 and 1973. It was limited to only two seasons of fieldwork. However, despite the limited time frame, a large amount of material was recovered and studied over the following decades. It was one of the first archaeological sites to use modern methods of excavation such as "flotation", which preserved even the tiniest and most fragile plant remains.[1][2] A preliminary report was published in 1983 and a final report in 2000.[1]

Location and descriptionEdit

Abu Hureyra is a tell, or ancient settlement mound, in modern-day Raqqa Governorate in northern Syria. It is on a plateau near the south bank of the Euphrates, 120 kilometres (75 mi) east of Aleppo. The tell is a massive accumulation of collapsed houses, debris, and lost objects accumulated over the course of the habitation of the ancient village. The mound is nearly 500 metres (1,600 ft) across, 8 metres (26 ft) deep, and contained over 1,000,000 cubic metres (35,000,000 cu ft) of archaeological deposits.[2]:42 Today the tell is inaccessible, drowned beneath the waters of Lake Assad.

Occupation historyEdit

First occupationEdit

The village of Abu Hureyra had two separate periods of occupation: An Epipalaeolithic settlement and a Neolithic settlement. The Epipaleolithic, or Natufian, settlement was established c. 13,500 years ago.[1] During the first settlement, the village consisted of small round huts, cut into the soft sandstone of the terrace. The roofs were supported with wooden posts, and roofed with brushwood and reeds.[2]:40-41 Huts contained underground storage areas for food. The inhabitants are probably most accurately described as "hunter-collectors", as they didn't only forage for immediate consumption, but built up stores for longterm food security. They settled down around their larder to protect it from animals and other humans. From the distribution of wild food plant remains found at Abu Hureyra it seems that they lived there year-round. The population was small, housing a few hundred people at most—but perhaps the largest collection of people permanently living in one place anywhere at that time.

The inhabitants of Abu Hureyra obtained food by hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plants. Gazelle was hunted primarily during the summer, when vast herds passed by the village during their annual migration.[2]:41-42 These would probably be hunted communally, as mass killings also required mass processing of meat, skin, and other parts of the animal. The huge amount of food obtained in a short period was a reason for settling down permanently: it was too heavy to carry and would need to be kept protected from weather and pests.

Other prey included large wild animals such as onager, sheep, and cattle, and smaller animals such as hare, fox, and birds, which were hunted throughout the year. Different plant species were collected, from three different eco-zones within walking distance (river, forest, and steppe). Plant foods were also harvested from "wild gardens" with species gathered including wild cereal grasses such as einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and two varieties of rye.[2]:41 Several large stone tools for grinding grain were found at the site.


After 1,300 years the hunter-gatherers of the first occupation mostly abandoned Abu Hureyra, probably because of the Younger Dryas, an intense and relatively abrupt return to glacial climate conditions which lasted over 1,000 years.[2] The drought disrupted the migration of the gazelle and destroyed forageable plant food sources. It is likely that most of the inhabitants had to give up sedentism and return to nomadism, or they might have moved to Mureybet, just 50 km upstream on the other side of the Euphrates, which expanded dramatically at this time. It seems that a small population managed to hang on at Abu Hureyra - maybe just a few single farms or a small hamlet.

Second occupationEdit

It is from the early part of the Younger Dryas that the first indirect evidence of agriculture was detected in the excavations at Abu Hureyra, although the cereals themselves were still of the wild variety.[3] It was during the intentional sowing of cereals in more favourable refuges like Mureybet that these first farmers developed domesticated strains during the centuries of drought and cold of the Younger Dryas. When the climate abated about 9500 BCE they spread all over the Middle East with this new bio-technology, and Abu Hureyra grew to a large village eventually with several thousand people. The second occupation grew domesticated varieties of rye, wheat and barley, and kept sheep as livestock. The hunting of gazelle decreased sharply, probably due to overexploitation that eventually left them extinct in the Middle East. At Abu Hureyra they were replaced by meat from domesticated animals. The second occupation lasted for about 2,000 years.

Transition from foraging to farmingEdit

Some evidence has been found for cultivation of rye from 11050 BCE[1] in the sudden rise of pollen from weed plants that typically infest newly disturbed soil. Peter Akkermans and Glenn Schwartz found this claim about epipaleolithic rye, "difficult to reconcile with the absence of cultivated cereals at Abu Hureyra and elsewhere for thousands of years afterwards".[4] It could have been an early experiment that didn't survive and continue. It has been suggested that drier climate conditions resulting from the beginning of the Younger Dryas caused wild cereals to become scarce, leading people to begin cultivation as a means of securing a food supply. Results of recent analysis of the rye grains from this level suggest that they may actually have been domesticated during the Epipalaeolithic. It is speculated that the permanent population of the first occupation was fewer than 200 individuals.[5] These individuals occupied several tens of square kilometers, a rich resource base of several different ecosystems. On this land they hunted, harvested food and wood, made charcoal, and may have cultivated cereals and grains for food and fuel.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e Moore, Andrew M. T.; Hillman, Gordon C.; Legge, Anthony J. (2000). Village on the Euphrates: From Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510806-X.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Mithen, Steven (2006). After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20000-5000 BC (paperback ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01570-3.
  3. ^ Hillman 2000a: 420-1; Bar-Yosef 2002a, 2002b; Dow, Olewiler and Reed 2005
  4. ^ Peter M. M. G. Akkermans; Glenn M. Schwartz (2003). The archaeology of Syria: from complex hunter-gatherers to early urban societies (c. 16,000-300 BC). Cambridge University Press. pp. 72–. ISBN 978-0-521-79666-8. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  5. ^ a b Hillman, Gordon C.; A. J. Legge; P. A. Rowle-Conwy (1997). "On the Charred Seeds from Epipalaeolithic Abu Hureyra: Food or Fuel?". Current Anthropology. 38 (4): 651–655. doi:10.1086/204651.

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