Geography and Environment


This section deals mainly with the geography and environment of the Levant, the main area with which this section is concerned.  It also describes the northern section that swings from Turkey to northern Iran, frequently referred to as the “Fertile Crescent”.

2.1 Geography

The Levant consists of a number of different distinct types of geomorphology – rich coastal plain, mountainous zone, valleys, the Jordan-Azraq Rift Valley, the Jordanian Plateau, steppe and desert zones.  Water resources include the Mediterranean, inland seas, rivers, lakes and springs.  The effect of the sea to the west and the desert on the east has formed a Levantine “corridor”, a bridge between two continents and a rich combination of topographical extremes and climatic systems.

2.2 Geology

Much of the surface of the Levant is covered by limestone and chalk, but there are also outcrops of limestone and basalt, as well as clay. Much of the rock is fragmented.  The most conspicuous geological feature, the Levantine corridor, was formed by tectonic forces which have created a transform fault extending from Turkey to the Red Sea.  The Arabian plate and the Sinai subplate are pulling in slightly different directions, and at different rates, creating what geologists call a transform fault.  Mountains reach 7000m above the floor of the rift valley.

2.3 Environment and Climate

In order to place 1000s of years of human activity within a suitable framework, and to understand the resources and areas available to human groups, it is necessary to build up a picture of the contemporary environmental and climatic conditions at each location and stage.  However, as Bar-Yosef and Meadow warn (1995, p.43): “The complex climatic system of the Near East today makes it difficult to reconstruct the patterns of the past”.  This section looks at a number of different indicators of climatic change and attempts to summarize the most important climatic events and reconstruct some of the relevant past environments.

The effects of vegetational expansion after 13,000bc onwards are likely to have had a considerable impact on hunter-gatherer subsistence potential in the Near East, albeit at slightly different times.  Hillman (1996, p.160) argues that climatic changes occurring at the end of the last glaciation would have had strong impacts, although they were very different in nature, upon both the southern Levant and the northern parts of the Fertile Crescent.

It is clear that some discussions about climatic change and its impact on localized environments and ecologies have sometimes been simplified in terms of human responses to these changes.  Blumer makes this point very clearly:  “present day plant communities almost certainly were not identical 10,000 years ago, and . . . whole communities did not shift north and south, or up and down slope as climate changed.  Rather, each individual species shifted in location according to it own requirements and adaptations, forming new species groupings” (1996, p.30).  It is therefore necessary to be aware of both general trends and locally specific situations.

This point can also be made for human responses to change.  For example, Sherratt makes the point that the Holocene interglacial was different from other similar episodes, and that the main features of it were that “certain areas emerged as ‘hot spots’ that were consistent foci of change.  Certain unusual conjunctions of features produced conditions that were not widely replicated.  These gave rise to population density gradients far steeper than anything that had existed in the Pleistocene:  in a word, ‘nuclear’ areas” (Sherratt 1996, p.133).

Overall, Lovell (2004) summarizes:  “the climatic evidence, although conflicting, appears to support a climatic optimum at the period of time covered by the Neolithic.  This is being increasingly accepted as the concensus” (2004, p.18).

2.3.1 The Levant

Pollen studies have suggested a climatic sequence for the Levant as follows, with differences suggested by each for the date of each phase.  Each column refers to a different palynological core derived from lake sediments.  Summarized and tabulated based on Fellner 1995:




Huleh Basin (Arava Rift Valley, Jordan)



Tsukada’s Borehole

The New Core

Cool and dry



24k – 14kBP

17.5 –

13.5 k BP

Warm, slightly humid/wet

22/20k –

18/16k BP

22/20k –

18/16k BP



Dry and warm

11.5k –

7.5k BP




Cool and wet


18/16k –

11/12k BP

14k –

10k BP


Cold and dry

18/16k –

11.5k BP




Warm and humid


12/11 –

5k BP

12/11kBP – 5k BP

13k –

11.5k  BP

Dry and Cool

(Younger Dryas)




11.5 –

10.5k BP

Slightly humid and humid




10.5 –

9k BP

These sequences show a certain amount of differentiation.  The post 13,000bp results from the New Core agree with other environmental data that suggests that the Younger Dryas, a dry cold period dating to between c.11,000 and 10,000bp had a considerable impact on the Near Eastern area. 

Bar-Yosef and Meadow (1995), Bar-Yosef (1998) and Bellwood (2005) have summarized the Near Eastern environment, which I have tabulated as follows (calibrated dates BC, from Bellwood 2005):

Date Range



Climatic Conditions





Late Glacial Maximum

Cold and Dry

Coastal areas with winter rainfall

Small lakes and closed basins dried up and increased forestation





Warmer and more humid, with atmospheric CO2 to modern day levels

Increased rainfall over region

Expansion of water bodies, fluctuating



Bolling Inter-stadial


Precipitation increasing in S. Levant

Expansion of oak forest, steppe and woodland, providing new environments for cereals, pulses and nuts, moister conditions in marginal areas





Peak in rainfall levels

Peak in areas available for occupation

11/10,800 – 10/10,300bp



Younger Dryas

Cold and Dry

Decrease in rainfall

Some marginal areas become inhospitable





Increase in rainfall but not to the extent of previous peaks

Increasing rise of sea level



Early Holocene



Much moister conditions than today in S. Levant and Anatolia – onset of climatic stability and seasonal conditions. 

Sea level rises until mid Holocene, reducing the Levantine postal plain, reducing foraging territories

Climatic changes can be associated with some of the changes visible in the archaeological record of the Levant.  For example, the Geometric Kebaran expansion into southern Palestine coincides with a period of climatic improvement and decreased aridity, which expanded the area available for settlement and exploitation.  It was followed by desiccation just before the Early Natufian, a period associated with the abandonment of southern Palestine and Sinai by Geometric Kebaran groups.  A return to the Negev in the Late Natufian was accompanied by another climatic improvement.  Although it is wise to be wary of environmental determinism as an explanatory cure-all, it is worth taking environmental factors into consideration when assessing population explosions and abandonment of geographical regions.

It is also worth noting that for around 10,000 years after the Late Glacial Maximum “the Levantine coastal plain from the Bay of Iskenderum (south east Turkey) to the Nile Delta lost to the sea a stretch of some 2-40km wide and about 600km long.  Such a change would have affected the size of hunter-gatherer territories and the collection of marine shells for decoration” (Bar-Yosef and Meadow 1995, p.44-45).  This has a considerable impact on our understanding of human exploitation of those areas now lost to us, leaving us bereft of data of potentially immense value.

There are three main vegetational zones within the Levant, representing wide variety over a somewhat limited area:

  • Mediterranean
    • Richest in terms of edible plant foods and vegetational cover
    • Woodlands and/or open parklands
  • Saharo-Arabian
    • Desert regions
    • In excess of 300-400mm of annual rainfall
  • Irano-Turanian
    • Dwarf shrubs and steppic vegetation

Cereals generally favour lightly wooded areas, apart from einkorn which prefers the open edges of woodland zones.  This means that the first agricultural sites were found in wooded zones.  Eventually farmers cleared woodland areas to increase the potential for cultivation.  Cereals made the transition to new environments, for which they were not naturally pre-adapted for very successfully.

2.3.2 Zagros

In the Zagros matters were slightly different.  A different set of pollen diagrams from Hula, Lake Zeribar, Lake Urmia and Lake Mirabad have revealed information about the environment in the Zagros area, which points to differences between his and other areas.  Hillman describes the changing Zagros climate and environment as follows:  “during the cold conditions of the Glacial Maximum, oak woodland continued to survive in the area, but that from about 13,000bc there was a steady expansion (and no doubt infilling) of the woodland.  This process accelerated from about 11,000bc and reached a climax around 9500bc” (Hillman 1996, p.166).  Between 9500 and 8500bc there was a reduction in woodland until 9000bc when woodland was, however, still extensive.   Hillman describes a number of sources of data, from which a number of interpretations are possible, but that the most plausible explanation of the data is that the Late Pleistocene woodland advance occurs at around the same time that it happens at Hula and elsewhere in the Levant.  He sees northern Levantine expansion of woodland expansion over the existing steppe and desert-steppe (with some pockets of woodland in favoured locations) as starting c.13,000bc, followed by a reversal during the Younger Dryas, then and a recovery between 8200-8600bc. 

The pre-13,000bc environment included vegetation that could have been exploited by human groups for food, including edible roots, seeds, leaves and flowers.    However, compared with the other areas of the Levant “the mean energy yield power unit area of this dry, cool steppe, is likely to have been relatively low” (Hillman 1996, p.180).

According to Hillman (1996, p.182) after 13,000bp temperature and humidity increased, with spring or summer rainfall, and peaked at around 9500bc.  The woodland expansion between 11,000 and 9500bc, included oak, terebinth, and rosaceae including wild almonds appears to have been relatively steady and continuous.   The Zeribar pollen indicates that oak expanded first followed by terebinth.  From around 4500bc there was a conspicuous increase in oak, terebinth and grass pollen.  Cereal and herbaceous annuals also spread during this period, probably achieving “highest concentrations in the broad woodland-steppe ecotones” (Hillman 1996, p.187).  Einkorn may have spread at a different rate because it does not favour woodland environments.  Hillman suggests that einkorn may have come from the north east edge of the Levantine woodlands.  Barley, he believes, could have spread from the northern Levant and further east (1996 p.188-189):  it is “possible to envisage a vast expanse of wild einkorn expanding across erstwhile steppe, and resembling a seemingly limitless, if patch, field – laced with a thin scatter of terebinth trees, almonds and hawthorns” (1996, p.189).  Increased seasonality peaked at around 8000bc.  Hillman concludes:  “available evidence currently suggests that this massive and abrupt increase in carrying capacity started at the western end of the northern Fertile Crescent around 13,000bc and progressed slowly eastwards, thereafter to spread southeast down the Zagros and reach the Zeribar around 9000bc (1996, p.192).


Copyright (text and images) Andie Byrnes 2005, unless otherwise stated