TNB Night Owl – Tel Abu Hureyra

View of Tell Barri (northeast Syria) from the west. Photo by. Zoeperkoe.

The archeological term ‘tel’ (alternative spellings; tell, til, tal) [etymology; from Arabic, for tall; especially a hill or mound] refers to the earthen remains of a human settlement that had been occupied for many centuries, usually several millennia. Tels were created by successive generations of humans building upon layer after layer of discarded building materials (disintegrating mud bricks and rotting wood), archeological objects, bones (both human and animal), plant material (perhaps grain and other seeds), refuse, dirt, dust, etc., left behind by previous generations. The mound gradually rose up from the earth where the original settlement started, which may have been a flat plain, but often was on a rise, or a low plateau. After ages of habitation, the settlement was abandoned leaving only a mound as much as 30 meters (100ft) high where a village or small city once flourished.

Tel Abu Hureyra is a remarkable example. Built on a plateau on the southwest bank of the Euphrates River floodplain, in what is now northern Syria, the mound is about 8 meters high (26 ft), approximately 500 meters (1,640ft / almost a third of a mile) long, and about half that wide. The settlement dates back at least 12,800 calendar years (11,500 BP (radiocarbon years)).

Archeologists studying Tel Abu Hureyra in 1972-1973 determined the site was inhabited from about 11,500-7,000 BP. The first occupants were hunter-gatherers. At some point in time, which is debated among scholars, these people learned to farm. They cultivated grains and domesticated goats, sheep, cows, and pigs, which makes the people of Abu Hureyra the world’s earliest known farmers. Their location, in the fertile Euphrates floodplain, had to have been a major contributing factor to success.

There was an urgency behind the Abu Hureyra archeological dig in the early 1970s. The Syrian government began building a dam on the Euphrates River in 1968, which was completed in 1973. By 1974, the Euphrates River floodplain filled with enough water to become Lake Assad. There will be no further archeological digs at Tel Abu Hureyra: the great mound is completely submerged.

Abu Hureyra is a remarkable example of a tel, primarily because it’s the earliest known settlement where humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. However, there is one more aspect to its story that is unique.

A cosmic event, theorized to possibly be a fragmented comet which collided with the Earth, occurred 12,800 years ago, leaving a carbon-rich layer across the strewnfield. The layer is known to geologists as the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB). The YDB strewnfield is huge, covering an entire hemisphere of the Earth with evidence found at thirty to forty locations across North and South America, Europe, and part of the Middle East. Tel Abu Hureyra is on the far eastern edge of the strewnfield, and has all the indications that its earliest residents met a horrible fate.

Andrew M. T. Moore, James P. Kennett, et al., have authored a new study, Evidence of Cosmic Impact at Abu Hureyra, Syria at the Younger Dryas Onset (~12.8 ka): High-temperature melting at >2200 °C. Moore is one of the original archeologists who excavated Tel Abu Hureyra in the seventies.

Studying sediment samples excavated from the YDB layer at Abu Hureyra in ’72-’74, researchers found “peak abundances in meltglass, nanodiamonds, microspherules, and charcoal”, and “[h]igh YDB concentrations of iridium, platinum, nickel, and cobalt [which] suggest mixing of melted local sediment with small quantities of meteoritic material”, at the lowest level (i.e., the oldest layer) of the settlement.

Temperatures greater than 2,200°C (~4,000°F) would be required in order to create meltglass, indicating that meltglass could not have been caused by thatched hut fires, which have been found to burn at no more than 1,200°C. Nor could lightning be the catalyst of meltglass formation, due to “low values of remanent magnetism” measured. Also, the low water content of the meltglass was inconsistent with volcanism. By process of elimination, the evidence at Abu Hureyra is consistent only with an asteroid or comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Kennett observed that, “A single major asteroid impact would not have caused such widely scattered materials like those discovered at Abu Hureyra. The largest cometary debris clusters are proposed to be capable of causing thousands of airbursts within a span of minutes across one entire hemisphere of Earth. The YDB hypothesis proposed this mechanism to account for the widely dispersed coeval materials across more than 14,000 kilometers of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Our Abu Hureyra discoveries strongly support a major impact event from such a fragmented comet.”

“The Abu Hureyra village would have been abruptly destroyed”, Kennett said.

Abu Hureyra shows direct evidence of the disaster on this early human settlement. An impact or an airburst must have occurred sufficiently close to send massive heat and molten glass over the entire early village.

It has been theorized that the comet that created the YDB layer also altered the climate and that this may have forced the hunter-gatherers of Abu Hureyra to find other means of surviving. That other means was farming: a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

In summary, the very earliest inhabitants of Abu Hureyra met a sudden end, but other hunter-gatherers, or perhaps survivors of the comet fragment, carried on. Eventually they became farmers, a momentus turning point in human history perhaps brought on by a cosmic collision. That’s a truly remarkable village.

Question of the night: Do you favor or oppose doing away with the bi-annual time change (spring forward, fall back)?

The team of archeologists who excavated Abu Hureyra in ’72-’73, Andrew Moore, Gordon Hillman, Anthony Legge, have a website where they’ve archived the data they collected and make it available to other researchers as well as to the public. Curiously, for reasons which aren’t ommediately obvious, they seperate the dig site into “two successive villages”, which they call Abu Hureyra 1 (11,500-10,000 BP) and Abu Hureyra 2 (9,700-7000 BP) with Abu Hureyra 2 built on top of Abu Hureyra 1. There’s no clear reason for the 300 year gap between them, especially given that the team also claims, “The village was occupied for over 4,500 radiocarbon years, an extraordinary span of continuous habitation that has provided a unique record of early village life”. It’s possible that the book* they wrote explains the reasoning behind separate villages and the 300 year gap.

*Village on the Euphrates, From Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra by A.M.T. Moore, G.C. Hillman, and A.J. Legge, Oxford University Press, 2000.
ISBN-13: 978-0195108064
ISBN-10: 019510806X

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