Abu Hureyra (Syria)

Early Evidence of Agriculture in the Euphrates Valley

Gobekli Tepe and Other Pre-Pottery Neolithic Sites in Turkey and Syria
Gobekli Tepe and Other Pre-Pottery Neolithic Sites in Turkey and Syria. Kris Hirst. Base map: CIA 2004, site data from Peters 2004 and Willcox 2005. 2011

Abu Hureyra is the name of the ruins of an ancient settlement, located on the south side of the Euphrates valley of northern Syria, and on an abandoned channel of that famous river. Nearly continuously occupied from ~13,000 to 6,000 years ago, before, during and after the introduction of agriculture in the region, Abu Hureyra is remarkable for its excellent faunal and floral preservation, providing crucial evidence for the economic shifts in diet and food production.

The tell at Abu Hureyra covers an area of some 11.5 hectares (~28.4 acres), and has occupations which archaeologists call Late Epipaleolithic (or Mesolithic), Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B, and Neolithic A, B and C.

Living at Abu Hureyra I

The earliest occupation at Abu Hureyra, ca. 13,000-12,000 years ago and known as Abu Hureyra I, was a permanent, year-round settlement of hunter-gatherers, who gathered over 100 species of edible seeds and fruits from the Euphrates valley and nearby regions. The settlers also had access to an abundance of animals, particularly Persian gazelles.

The Abu Hureyra I people lived in a cluster of semi-subterranean pit houses (semi-subterranean meaning, the dwellings were partially dug into the ground). The stone tool assemblage of the upper Paleolithic settlement contained high percentages of microlithic lunates suggesting the settlement had been occupied during Levantine Epipaleolithic stage II.

Beginning ~11,000 RCYBP, the people experienced environmental changes to a cold, dry conditions associated with the Younger Dryas period. Many of the wild plants the people had relied on disappeared. The earliest cultivated species at Abu Hureyra appears to have been rye (Secale cereale) and lentils and possibly wheat. This settlement was abandoned, in the second half of the 11th millennium BP.

During the latter part of Abu Hureyra I (~10,000-9400 RCYBP), and after the original dwelling pits were filled in with debris, the people returned to Abu Hureyra and built new above-ground huts of perishable materials, and grew wild rye, lentils, and einkorn wheat.

Abu Hureyra II

The fully Neolithic Abu Hureyra II (~9400-7000 RCYBP) settlement was composed of a collection of rectangular, multi-roomed family dwellings built of mud brick. This village grew to a maximum population of between 4,000 and 6,000 people, and the people grew domestic crops including rye, lentils, and einkorn wheat, but added emmer wheat, barley, chickpeas and field beans, all of the latter probably domesticated elsewhere. at the same time, a switch from reliance on Persian gazelle to domestic sheep and goats occurred.

Abu Hureyra Excavations

Abu Hureyra was excavated from 1972-1974 by Andrew Moore and colleagues as a salvage operation prior to construction of the Tabqa Dam, which in 1974 flooded this part of the Euphrates Valley and created Lake Assad. Excavation results from the Abu Hureyra site were reported by A.M.T. Moore, G.C. Hillman, and A.J. Legge, published by Oxford University Press. Additional research has been conducted on the massive quantities of artifacts collected from the site since then.

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