Endurance in the Fertile Crescent
Jericho, located in the West Bank region of the Middle East, is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.
The Fall of Jericho from Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti © Bill Ross/CORBIS
History and Environment
Jericho’s 14,000-year survival is a direct result of biological and geological advantages that explain why a settlement was established there in the first place. This essay explores the idea that the history of a place is just as much about its physical environment as it is about superior technology or government. Big historians, who are interested in the appearance and development of the first agrarian civilizations, ask probing questions: What were the geographical and biological advantages favoring certain regions that facilitated the appearance of the first towns and cities there? What role did climate play in allowing for agrarian civilizations to appear in some regions, while others remained better suited for foraging? And why is it that, while some agrarian civilizations seem to have abused their environments, and thus sowed the seeds of their own destruction, others were able to husband the advantages provided by geography and biology and successfully sustain themselves for thousands of years?
To illustrate this critical relationship between history and its environmental context, we use the city of Jericho as a case study. Jericho is the oldest city on the planet, situated today in the West Bank region of the Middle East. The location and long-term survival of the city is an excellent example of the impact of the environment on human history. The establishment of Jericho 14,000 years ago resulted from the same geographical and biological factors that led to the most significant revolution in all human history — the appearance of agriculture.
To remind ourselves just how revolutionary this transition was, let’s consider the situation some 15,000 years ago. Humans had by then occupied every continent on the globe except Antarctica. Every single human, wherever they lived, survived by foraging, also known as hunting and gathering. Humans had invented a wide array of foraging techniques specifically adapted to different environments, which ranged from the deserts of Australia to the Arctic ice. But the small size of most foraging bands, and the fact that few exchanges took place between them, limited the amount of collective learning that went on
But then something changed! Between 11,000 and 10,000 years ago, new lifeways and technologies associated with farming began to appear. Farming eventually gave humans access to more food and energy; consequently, humans began to multiply more rapidly and live in larger communities like villages, towns, and eventually cities. These processes led to an entirely new level of complexity in the human condition. The transition to agriculture was the first step in a cultural revolution that utterly transformed human societies and drove our species onto a path that led rapidly toward the astonishing complexity of the modern world. And one of the most significant steps in the early stages of that process was the emergence of large settlements like Uruk and Tenochtitlan — and Jericho.To explore the history of Jericho we need first to take a look at the role of climate change in encouraging humans to make this transition to farming, particularly in the Fertile Crescent. Then we need to consider the Natufian people, who were some of the first humans to adopt farming and also were the founders of the small foraging base that went on to become the city of Jericho. Next we need to ask, why there? What particular geological and biological advantages did Jericho have that not only explain why it was established where it was but also account for its longevity? We conclude with a closer look at events in Jericho, further evidence of the importance of environmental factors in the rich tapestry of human history.