Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Fertile Crescent and the Cradle of Civilization

Alice C. Linsley
Breasted's Fertile Crescent

Historians have long used the term "cradle of civilization" to speak of Mesopotamia. Today the terms "fertile crescent" and "cradle of civilization" are synonymous in many minds. For anthropologists this poses a problem because "civilization" looks different among the Nilo-Saharans and the Mesopotamians when examined in greater detail. The ancient Nilo-Saharans and Mesopotamians had a different way of life, a different conception of the Creator and a different cosmology. The Nilo-Saharans were the first to practice circumcision and animal sacrifice, and the divine name YHWY originated in the Upper Nile. The expectation of a righteous ruler who would lead his people to immortality originated among the Nilo-Saharans. This is why they took such great care in the burial of their rulers.

Reporting on his second expedition to Abydos (1896-1897), Abbe Émile Amélineau had this to say about Abraham's Anu ancestors: "These Anu were agricultural people, raising cattle on a large scale along the Nile, shutting themselves up in walled cities for defensive purposes. To this people we can attribute, without fear of error, the most ancient Egyptian books, The Book of the Dead and the Texts of the Pyramids, consequently, all the myths or religious teachings. I would add almost all the philosophical systems then known and still called Egyptian. They evidently knew the crafts necessary for any civilization and were familiar with the tools those trades required. They knew how to use metals, at least elementary metals. They made the earliest attempts at writing, for the whole Egyptian tradition attributes this art to Thoth, the great Hermes an Anu like Osiris, who is called Onian in Chapter XV of The Book of the Dead and in the Texts of the Pyramids.” Abydos and Heliopolis (Biblical On) were Ainu shrine cities of the Fertile Crescent.

"Fertile Crescent" refers to part of the ancient Near East that has been considered to be the principal center for the emergence of agriculture, villages, and cities. The term was coined by James Henry Breasted (1865–1935), a scholar of ancient Egypt and director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, in his 1916 textbook, Ancient Times: A History of the Early World.

Mesopotamia was assumed to be the “cradle of civilization” because of two developments that occurred there: the rise of the city and the invention of writing. Between 3000-2200 B.C, the principal Mesopotamian cities were Lagash, Iraq with about 60,000 inhabitants, Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan, with about 40,000 inhabitants, and Mari, Syria, with 50,000 inhabitants. At that same time Nekhen (Hierakonpolis) was the most important settlement along the Nile, with an estimated population of 20,000. It was a bustling city that stretched for over 2 miles along the edge of the floodplain. Recent discoveries at Nekhen continue to push back the dating of early civilizations. On May 6, 2014 Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim announced the discovery of a Pre-Dynastic tomb that dates to about 500 years before King Narmer of 1st Dynasty.

Renée Friedman, who has direct knowledge of the excavations at Nekhen, has written that the "evidence of industrial production, temples, masks, mummies, and funerary architecture as early as 3500 B.C. is placing Hierakonpolis at the forefront of traditions and practices that would come to typify Egyptian culture centuries later. These discoveries may have knocked Narmer and his palette off their historical pedestal, but they confirm the central role the city played in the long development of Egyptian civilization. It is little wonder that for millennia the deified early kings of Hierakonpolis, called the Souls of Nekhen, were honored guests at the coronations and funerals of all pharaohs."

Nekhen was a principal city of Breasted's Fertile Crescent.

Long before this (9700-4400 years ago), the Gobero populations were living between along the major water systems of Niger. The early Holocene occupants at Gobero (7700–6200 B.C.) were mainly sedentary peoples with lakeside funerary sites that include the earliest recorded cemetery in the Sahara. Surely, ritual burial sites as large as that found at Gobero should be considered marks of human civilization.

The cradle of civilization is indeed Breasted's fertile crescent, a much greater expanse of land than Mesopotamia alone. There were agricultural and cattle-herding settlements in the Nile Valley during the last Glacial Maximum and the terminal Pleistocene (20,000 to 8500 B.C.). The Nile Valley and the green Sahara are part of the cradle of civilization. The crescent was populated by peoples who had a common religious and linguistic heritage, but these developed differently outside of Africa.

Correcting Distortions

Some Bible scholars have distorted the anthropological picture by ignoring Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors as they are identified in Genesis 4-10. Jewish writers, for example, generally begin the history of the Jews with the calling of Abraham. While Abraham did live in Mesopotamia, his ancestors came from Africa. One was the Kushite kingdom builder Nimrod (Gen. 10). 

In the mid to late 20th century Old Testament studies benefited from archaeological discoveries in the Near East and from linguistic studies of ancient Near Eastern languages such as Akkadian, Elamite and Sumerian. Connections were made between ancient Near Eastern religious practices and those of Abraham and his ancestors. Today scholars continue to labor those connections though there is overwhelming evidence that practices such as animal sacrifice and circumcision began in the Nile Valley, not in Mesopotamia. For example, William W. Hallo, a former Yale professor, insists that the practice of animal sacrifice originated in ancient Mesopotamia. He seems to be unaware that priests sacrificed animals at the Horite shrine city of Nekhen as early as 4000 B.C. 

It was commonly asserted that the Gilgamesh Epic was the basis for the Biblical story of the flood. Much was made of the parallels between the two accounts, but generally the differences, which are significant, were overlooked or ignored. More recently, the "Ark Tablet" of only twenty lines was translated by British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. It is an Old Babylonian account in which the deity instructs the ruler Atrahasis to build and waterproof a circular boat or coracle. The tablet dates to 1900-1700 B.C. and therefore dates to a time about 500 years after the Biblical Noah.

As far as the invention of writing, Breasted included the Nile Valley because writing was already in an advanced state among the Nilotic and Proto-Saharan peoples before the 4th millennium B.C.

Nilotic scribe
(c. 2494 to 2345 BC)
In Abraham's time there were about 750 hieroglyphs (priest symbols). Only about 500 signs were commonly used. However, in the time of Menes there may have been as many as 1000. Archaeology Magazine reported (1999) that the earliest Egyptian glyphs date to 3400 BC, the time of Menes, which challenges "the commonly held belief that early logographs, pictographic symbols representing a specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into more complex phonetic symbols in Mesopotamia."

The rock paintings of the Sudan and Arabia, and the lexemes that appear in the Nilotic, Dedanite and Thamudic scripts indicate considerable uniformity in written communication over a vast region. We recognize Y/I/J, O, X, T and W among the oldest of the lexemes.

Further, DNA studies have demonstrated that modern humans first emerged in Africa and that these populations moved out of Africa, taking with them their languages and their religious practices. Linguistic studies provide evidence that the oldest units of spoken language (phonemes) originated in Africa and the farther from Africa that peoples migrated the greater the loss of the original phonemes. Even today, Africa has the greatest genetic and linguistic diversity of any place in the world.

Related reading: The Origin of Circumcision, Where Did Animal Sacrifice Originate?; The Urheimat of the Canaanite Y; Scholarly Prejudice?; Newly Discovered Pyramid Predates Noah; The Nubian Context of YHWH; Boat Petroglyphs of Egypt's Central Desert; Why Nekhen is Anthropologically Significant


DManA said...

----- a different cosmology -----

I believe you posted something about this last year. As I recall you said all ancient civilization shared the same model of the universe which consisted of:
The pillars of the earth.
An underworld.
The dry earth surrounded by an earthly sea.
The firmament - a clear barrier on which was embedded the stars and across which the sun and the moon moved.
The heavenly sea ( separated from us by the firmament.
And above the heavenly see the heaven of heavens.

So did the Mesopotamians have a different cosmology from the Nilo-Saharans?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, those are ideas found very widely among the peoples of the Fertile Crescent. The pillar is also sometimes shown as a mountain or a pyramid. The Mesopotamians were later influenced by Babylonian and Persian ideas.

Nilotic cosmology is explained here:

And here: