The Rise of the First Cities through Genetic Research

Juan Siliezar at The Harvard Gazette writes about new genetic research into the movement and interactions of inhabitants of different areas of Western Asia and the Levant in the Bronze and Iron Ages. According to the evidence, people traveled and interacted with their neighbors before the rise of cities (and not the other way around as previously thought).

MHAAM Genetic Gradient 6500 BCE

Quoting Siliezar’s article:

“The evidence reveals that a high level of mobility led to the spread of ideas and material culture as well as intermingling of peoples in the period before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought. The findings add to our understanding of exactly how the shift to urbanism took place.

“The researchers, made up of an international team of scientists including Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, looked at DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The remains came from archaeological sites in the Anatolia (present-day Turkey); the Northern Levant, which includes countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Israel and Jordan; and countries in the Southern Caucasus, which include present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Based on their analysis, the scientists describe two events, one around 8,500 years ago and the other 4,000 years ago, that point to long-term genetic mixing and gradual population movements in the region.

“’Within this geographic scope, you have a number of distinct populations, distinct ideological groups that are interacting quite a lot, and it hasn’t really been clear to what degree people are actually moving or if this is simply just a high-contact area from trade,’ said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. ‘Rather than this period being characterized by dramatic migrations or conquest, what we see is the slow mixing of different populations, the slow mixing of ideas, and it’s percolating out of this melting pot that we see the rise of urbanism — the rise of cities.’ […]

“Historically, Western Asia, which includes today’s Middle East, is one of civilization’s most important geographical locations. Not only did it create some of humanity’s earliest cities, but its early trade routes laid the foundation for what would become the Silk Road, a route that commercially linked Asia, Africa, and Europe. […]

“The paper outlines how populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began mixing approximately 8,500 years ago. That resulted in a gradual change in genetic profile that over a millennium slowly spread across both areas and entered into what is now Northern Iraq. […]

“’What’s really interesting is that we see these populations are mixing genetically long before we see clear material culture evidence of this — so long before we see direct evidence in pottery or tools or any of these more conventional archaeological evidence artifacts,’ Warinner said. ‘That’s important because sometimes we’re limited in how we see the past. We see the past through artifacts, through the evidence people leave behind. But sometimes events are happening that don’t leave traces in conventional ways, so by using genetics, we were able to access this much earlier mixing of populations that wasn’t apparent before.’”

Interesting, especially the fact that genetic mixing predates evidence seen in artifacts. Sounds like there’s much to research in the future!

Read more at The Harvard Gazette or see the original article by Lily Agranat-Tamir et al. at Cell.

Found via File 770.

Image: The Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM) via Phys.org.

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