Life in Mesopotamia in 10,000 B.C. or the Neolithic Period

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

The Neolithic period was the final period of the Stone Age, and it began about 12,000 years ago or around 10,000 B.C. This was a period of history when human life became more secure and when human beings were able to establish a daily pattern of life that would be recognizable to us today, in conditions that are more or less settled. This can be traced back to the region known as Mesopotamia, a region where many of the advances in culture took place. So, what was living in Mesopotamia like?

A clam, wide river with green, fertile banks on both sides, and brown, dusty hills are visible in the horizon.
The Euphrates River, along with Tigris, was the primary reason why people were able to settle in Mesopotamia and prosper over a long period of time. (Image: Bertramz/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Mesopotamia comprises modern-day Iraq, part of southeast Turkey, and northeast Syria. It’s a Greek word that means ‘the Land between Two Rivers’, the two rivers being the Tigris and the Euphrates. They both have their source in the uplands of Turkey and flow into the Persian Gulf. It was very largely due to the Tigris and the Euphrates that culture evolved in this region.

The reason for this is because they provided the means and the setting for some of the earliest attempts at agriculture and irrigation. Even if we look at a map of the region today, we’ll see that there’s a green swathe of cultivated land on either side of the two rivers.

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Living in Mesopotamia in 10,000 B.C.

People living in Mesopotamia around 10,000 B.C. were probably hunter-gatherers. They hunted wild animals, gathered berries, nuts and mushrooms, and caught fishes. They used axes whose heads were made of flint. They moved their campsite regularly, following the trail of food. They had domesticated dogs to help them hunt. However, they probably didn’t have a pet cat.

The very earliest evidence of a domesticated cat comes from Cyprus, where a human grave dated 7300 B.C. was found with the bones of a cat. The cat was perhaps so beloved that its owner decided he or she had to take it with her to the afterlife.

As resources were scarce in Mesopotamia in 10,000 B.C., people had to defend themselves from other hunter-gatherer groups, probably fighting with them to the death for valued hunting-gathering grounds—turf warfare, in other words, in the literal sense of the word.

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Adoption of Sedentism and Introduction of Agriculture

Around 9500 B.C., there was a dramatic change in the environment. The world began to emerge from the last Ice Age and grasslands began to spread across much of what we call the Middle East. People began to clear openings for grass to grow, in order to attract animals and to create living spaces in the woods for themselves.

This is what archeologists used to call the Neolithic Revolution or the revolution of the New Stone Age, although it’s now becoming clear that there was more continuity with the Paleolithic period or the Old Stone Age than we previously thought.

The change in environment was marked by the widespread adoption of sedentism, meaning a sedentary way of life—although not in the modern sense of the term. Sedentism means residing in the same place, instead of always following your food source.

Among the first people known to have practiced sedentism were the Natufians, who flourished from 12,500–9500 B.C. The Natufian homeland was primarily in what we call the Levant—Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon—though there were some Natufian sites in Mesopotamia.

Along with sedentism came the introduction of agriculture. Once again, it may be that the Natufians can claim credit for being the first farmers, around 11,500 B.C. Farming revolutionized human life and was an enormous catalyst for change. People learned how to mark out fields, plant seeds, harvest the crops and make bread. They also learned how to domesticate the first sheep, and then a little later cattle and pigs.

However, we shouldn’t suppose that the landscape where farming was practiced changed dramatically, that it suddenly took on the modern appearance of a farmed landscape. Farming was on a very small scale and in isolated pockets.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The advent of agriculture must have been a magical experience for humans in this period. They would have sensed only very dimly the connection between cause and effect, and they certainly wouldn’t have seen themselves as obeying the ‘laws of nature’. They wouldn’t have had the faintest idea of such a concept. Rather they would have seen themselves as trying to control what was wild and chaotic.

The cycle of the seasons would have been a complete mystery to them. So all the actions that they performed were accompanied by ritual, in order to secure the favor of the gods or more likely that of the spirits which surrounded them and influenced every natural event. Hence, the importance of fertility religion, often symbolized by a heavily pregnant woman, like the famous Venus of Willendorf. In their mind, all forms of fertility were linked, and no symbol better expresses fertility than that of a heavily pregnant woman.

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How Agricultural Sedentism Changed Human Mindset

The introduction of agricultural sedentism brought a huge change in the mindset of human beings. Now, for the first time, they would have enjoyed a sense of safety and security in having a few jars of stored grain between themselves and famine. They would have had the leisure to create works of art, makeup stories, and perhaps specialize in making pottery or jewelry. Pottery was perhaps invented in Mesopotamia as early as 6000 B.C.

A stone sculpture of man with a bald head, closely set eyes, sharp nose, and hands drawn close to the body with the  fingers laced.
Agricultural sedentism in Mesopotamia changed the human mindset and gave them leisure time to create works of art, like this sculpture that’s considered the oldest life-sized sculpture of a human in the world. (Image: Cobija/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

It was also a time when humans developed a greater sense of territoriality, and a sharper need to protect what was theirs against the encroachments of others. This was so because now they had more possessions than they could carry on their back, and they occupied land that they had to sweat over to make it yield a harvest.

The earliest permanent settlements in Mesopotamia, which also date to around 6000 B.C., were in northern Iraq and Syria. They first developed in the north because there’s more plentiful rainfall in the north of this region than there is in the south. So, we see again the importance of climate.

Living close to the riverbank, they built their houses either from piled-up mud or from layers of mud or with sundried mudbrick, and then they covered the surface of the walls in plaster. Using the mud, they created pottery, both to eat and drink out of, and to store things in. Using the two rivers, they traded over long distances. They were particularly keen to acquire obsidian, a stone that was used to shape arrowheads.

When they discovered the technique of irrigation, they were able to establish settlements further south. The discovery of irrigation made as profound an impact upon human life as the discovery of the means to make and control fire.

Henceforth, they could control floods, although at times they were overwhelmed, as happens all too frequently to this day. The story of the cataclysmic flood that is recorded in both Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh may have its origins in particularly severe flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, resulting in very severe loss of life.

Common Questions about Life in Mesopotamia in 10,000 B.C.

Q: What is Mesopotamia known as today?

Mesopotamia was located across modern-day Iraq, part of southeast Turkey, and northeast Syria.

Q: What is Mesopotamia known for?

Mesopotamia was one of the first human settlements when human life became more secure, and when human beings were able to establish a daily pattern of life that’s recognizable to us today. It’s also where some of the first attempts at agriculture and irrigation were made by humans. The other thing Mesopotamia is known for is that this region is responsible for many of the advances in culture.

Q: What are 5 facts about Mesopotamia?

A lot can be said about Mesopotamia, but the five key facts are, a) its location between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is largely responsible for how it turned out to be, b) the people of Mesopotamia started off as hunter-gatherers and later transformed into farmers, traders, etc., c) they engaged in literal turf wars, d) they were one of the first groups of humans to adopt a sedentary way of life and e) sedentism brought about a change in human mindset and enabled them to explore art and culture.

Q: What did Mesopotamians eat?

Mesopotamians started off as hunter-gatherers. They hunted wild animals, gathered berries, nuts and mushrooms, and caught fishes. Once agriculture was introduced, they learned how to mark out fields, plant seeds, harvest the crops and make bread. They also learned how to domesticate the first sheep, and then a little later cattle and pigs.

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