The Middle East Neolithic Transition:

Integrated Community Approaches

Our world is marked by ‘disruption’, re-orderings of society in changing circumstances, including abrupt climate change, impacting on social and economic life. What lessons can we learn from the prehistoric past about disruption, and human engagement with it?

One of the first global disruptions faced by human societies was the Neolithic transition from mobile forager-hunter to settled farmer-herder through the Epi-Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic periods of the Middle East, 17,000-7000 BCE. Human communities worked through this disruption, including climate change, to enable complex societies to thrive and to form the basis for later cities, empires and civilisations. In this project, we address key ‘Grand Challenges’ for archaeology including human responses to climate change, and societal transformation and resilience.

From October 2018, an inter-disciplinary team is investigating the Early Neolithic transition in a greatly under-researched region, the eastern Fertile Crescent of western Iran and eastern Iraq, a core zone for early developments, including domestication of animals and crops such as goat and barley. From this zone, early farmers disseminated herding and cultivating practices across Iran into Central and South Asia and Transcaucasia. But as yet we know little about the early stages in the development of farming life-ways in the eastern Fertile Crescent, because this upland area of the Zagros mountains in Iran and Iraq has been challenging for research teams to work in. Spanning both western Iran and eastern Iraq, this trans-border project is situated on a major ancient route-way (later the Silk Road) from the highlands of Iran to the plains of Mesopotamia. Supported by a European Research Council Advanced Grant, this research is conducted through a programme of six integrated Work Packages examining climate, plants and animals, built environment, food-ways, death and burial, and craft, within a theoretical framework of community networks and identities.

Project Aims

The aim of this project is to generate community-scale, inter-disciplinary insights into the Early Neolithic transition, through analysis of contextualised data from excavations at three archaeological sites in the eastern Fertile Crescent (EFC) of western Iran and eastern Iraq, a core area of early transition to farming-herding. The prime research question is: how did EP-EN human communities negotiate disruption in their transition from mobile hunting and foraging to sedentary farming and herding?

The project research objectives are: (1) to conduct state-of-the-art investigation at one Epi-Palaeolithic and two Early Neolithic sites in the EFC to generate multi-scalar, contextual evidence for investigation of the aims and objectives of Work Packages (WP) 1-6; (2) to examine ecological and socio-cultural aspects of the EP-EN transition, for inter-disciplinary insights into changing human-animal-plant-environment interrelations, at household, intra- and inter-community scales; (3) to analyse the results of WP1-6 in multi-scalar investigations of community networks, collective identities and resilience strategies; (4) to investigate the global significance of the EFC as a core zone, informing on societal engagement with disruptive changes, with significance for understanding challenges of today, including interconnections between environmental and social change.

The ground-breaking nature of this project lies in three major contributions to scientific understanding of the Early Neolithic transition. (1) The research will comprise the first extensive archaeological investigation of EP-EN sites in the EFC, to provide the scale needed to examine issues of collective identity and networks. (2) Investigations at the Early Neolithic sites in this project, Sheikh-e Abad in Iran and Bestansur in Iraq, will enable us to examine the entire Early Neolithic period, 10,000 to 7000 BCE. No previous excavation project has investigated the 3000-year span of the Early Neolithic transition, essential for understanding diachronic aspects of plant and animal management, and the development of sedentism, craft technologies, burial practices and collective identities. (3) The location of the project sites, Sheikh-e Abad in the high Zagros and Zarzi and Bestansur in the Zagros foothills, enables comparative analysis of a suite of ecological zones, from the Iranian highlands to the edge of the Mesopotamian plains, and investigation of local responses to and impacts on environmental and climatic change.

Find out more about the project here.