Tell Abu Hureyra

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For the companion of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, see Abu Hurairah.
Tell Abu Hureyra
تل أبو هريرة
Tell Abu Hureyra is located in Syria
Tell Abu Hureyra
Shown within Syria
Alternate name Tell Mardikh (Arabic: تل مرديخ‎‎)
Location Ar-Raqqah Governorate, Syria
Region Lake Assad
Coordinates 35°51′58″N 38°24′00″E / 35.866°N 38.400°E / 35.866; 38.400
Type settlement
Founded ca. 9,500 BC
Abandoned ca. 5,000 BC
Periods EpipaleolithicNeolithic
Cultures Natufian culture
Site notes
Excavation dates 1972—1973
Archaeologists Andrew Moore, Gordon Hillman, Anthony Legge
Condition flooded by Lake Assad

Tell Abu Hureyra (Arabic: تل أبو هريرة‎‎) is an archaeological site located 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 (see PPN), spanning the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic periods.[1] Ancient Abu Hureyra was occupied between 13,000 and 9000 years ago in radio carbon years.[1] 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.[citation needed]

History of research[edit]

The site was excavated as a rescue operation before it would be 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, because the site was due to be flooded by Lake Assad. 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 description[edit]

Abu Hureyra is a tell, or ancient settlement mound, located in modern-day Ar-Raqqah Governorate in northern Syria. It is located on a plateau near the south bank of the Euphrates, 120 kilometres (75 mi) east of Aleppo. The tell is actually 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 contains over 1,000,000 cubic metres (35,000,000 cu ft) of archaeological deposits.[2] Today the tell is inaccessible, drowned beneath the waters of Lake Assad.

Occupation history[edit]

First occupation[edit]

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 around 13,500 years ago.[1] During the first settlement, c. 13,000 BP, 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.[3] Huts contained underground storage areas for food. So they are probably more accurately described as "hunter-collectors", as they didn't only forage for immidiate consumption, but built up stores for long-time food security. So they had to settle 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 still maybe the largest collection of people permanently living in one place anywhere.

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.[4] These would probably be hunted communally, as mass killings also required mass processing of meat, skin and other parts of the animal. Again, this huge amount of food in a short time span was a reason for settling down permanently: too heavy to carry along, and it would need to be kept in some kind of structures to keep it from the 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. A huge amount of different plant species were collected, from 3 different ecozones within walking distance. Plant foods were also harvested from "wild gardens,"[5] with species gathered including wild cereal grasses such as einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, and two varieties of rye. Several large stones tools for grinding grain where found at the site.


After 1300 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.[5] The drought disrupted the migration of the gazelle, and decimated the forageable plant food sources. It is likely that most of the inhabitants had to give up sedentism and returned to life on the move. Many of them might have gone 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, which thereby was continuously inhabited for 4500 years.

Second occupation[edit]

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 (see PPNA).[6] 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 (see the Khiamian). When the climate abated from 9500 B.C. 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 (see PPNB). The hunting of gazelle decreased sharply, probably due to an 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 2000 years.

Transition from foraging to farming[edit]

Some evidence has been found for cultivation of rye from 11,050 BC.,[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".[7] 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.[8] These individuals occupied several tens of square kilometers, comprising a rich resource base of several different ecosystems (river, forest and steppe). On this land they hunted, harvested food and wood, made charcoal, and may have cultivated cereals and grains for food and fuel.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e f 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 Mithen, Steven (2006). After the ice : a global human history, 20.000 - 5.000 BC (1. paperback ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. p. 42. ISBN 0-674-01570-3. 
  3. ^ Mithen, Steven (2006). After the ice : a global human history, 20.000 - 5.000 BC (1. paperback ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. pp. 40, 41. ISBN 0-674-01570-3. 
  4. ^ Mithen, Steven (2006). After the ice : a global human history, 20.000 - 5.000 BC (1. paperback ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. pp. 41, 42. ISBN 0-674-01570-3. 
  5. ^ a b Mithen, Steven (2006). After the ice : a global human history, 20.000 - 5.000 BC (1. paperback ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. p. 41. ISBN 0-674-01570-3. 
  6. ^ Hillman 2000a: 420-1; Bar-Yosef 2002a, 2002b; Dow, Olewiler and Reed 2005
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ 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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