Sunday, 8 July 2012

Did it all begin in the Bronze Age?

Food Security part two.

It began a long time ago - humans began this cycle way- way- way back when.  It is a fact that food security actually depends upon a surplus of food. Some of my favourite Neolithic peoples are the Sumerians, from ancient Mesopotamia.  They, at about the same time as the Chinese, developed, what is thought to be, the first stable agricultural system. Around 3500 BC the Sumerians constructed a mesh of dykes/ditches through the swamps of what was to be Mesopotamia. And turned the area into a land of agricultural surpluses.

Agriculture had begun in this area before 7000 BC, in the uplands of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. After that first ditch had been dug, there were great wheat fields across the land and the first cities that we know off had started to be built such By 3000 BC it was a city of great stone walls temples, and palaces. Ruled by priests and kings. Don't forget, this was way back in Neolithic times.

Growing grains, setting up a network of roads, conquering the sea and establishing trade routes made the area very wealthy indeed. Good on them, you may think. They only had land, water and agriculture and became Empire builders because of it, and because they lacked other vital resources needed for power.  They used their best resource for trade, and did so in an arc which is believed to have encompassed 3,000 miles.  Reaching from Anatolia to near the Indian Ocean and to the present day Indus Valley.

The area became enormously wealthy by trading their food surplus to other areas by their trade routes in exchange for all the pleasures that could be had in the Bronze Age. Such as vital textiles and semiprecious metals, stone and weapons. Records written approximately 2100 BC show that there were shipments of as much as 20,000 litres of grain at a time. That's a lot of grain! With this trading the coastal towns grew, populations increasing, the inland towns became richer. The Mesopotamians had to look after those fields.

A food surplus depends on:

Reliable water sources

Fertile ground: and in those days

Intensive farming with backbreaking work.

That last task very soon fell to the lowest of the low in society and to slaves.

This very early agricultural revolution produced not healthier living as one would suppose but a dip in the quality of the diet compared to that of the hunter gatherers they had been, causing:

Tooth decay


And stunted growth.

Also in the increasingly crowded towns and cities that sprang up all along the trade routes

Diseases such as TB

Joints and bone disorders, due to the long hours of hard labour

Another consequence of this agricultural revolution was an increase in warfare, as populations grew so more land was needed.  For the defence of land already possesed
Standing armies were formed

they could be used to gain more land - by invasion

Empire building began

An underclass was formed as inequalities between the wealthy and the poor, the well fed and the underfed became more common

To control the empires, the armies, the underclass, the slaves, strong dictatorial governments became the norm.

More and more hunter gatherers became agriculturalists, probably because they had no choice. Because the farming communities became aggressive and territorial, gathering food surplus, and invading new lands, enclosing these lands, they either joined or died.

Climate change helped to fuel this revolution as well as destroy it.

Until 8,000 BC this area had been cold and not that promising. Small scale agriculture had been practised here. Then there was a period of wet warmer climate which encouraged excessive growth.

The downfall was caused by various reasons some of which included

Over grazing livestock on the hills

De-forestation on the hills

These two resulted in loosening top soil which was washed down into the canals silting them up. When the rainwater went through this denuded hillside soil it left high sodium levels which dried out in the sunshine of the Middle East into salt deposits on the earth, which blocked vital minerals from being absorbed into the soil.

Between 3000 and 2350 BC Mesopotamia was achieving 2,000 litres per hectare. In 2,000 BC this had dropped to 1,130 litres per hectare. 300 years later it was 370 litres per hectare. The bottom had dropped out of this particular market.

Climate again had helped this fall, between 3,100 BC and 1,200 BC it had suddenly become very hot and dry.

The Sumerians apparently were the first people in history to come to blows over irrigation structures, although we only believe they were the first because they left written records of disputes.  Who knows what was going on before. A series of tablets have been dug up which record the story of clashes over boundary marking canals. The owners and their followers waged war over this dispute, slaughtering and vandalising in an ever increasing vendetta.

The intensive farming, deforestation, and vandalization of the fertility of the soil all led to the Sumerians downfall. They had a good innings, but once food supplies began to dry up they lost their power, began to lose their riches, and were ripe for a takeover by someone else more powerful.  


  1. An excellent summation, Alberta! Thanks for laying it out so succinctly.

    Marian Allen
    Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

  2. Wow, fascinating stuff. While I love history, I don't know much about ancient civilizations like the Sumerians. Now I know a bit more!

  3. I love these mini history lessons, alberta!