Years ago when I joined many of my farm-kid peers in long, hot days driving wheat truck in the harvest field, I was introduced to the historical fiction of authors like James Michener and Taylor Caldwell. Reading Michener’s The Source was not only highly informative and entertaining, I found it also made the time pass more readily and I couldn’t complain about the hot Columbia Plain weather when compared to his descriptions of life in the warmer climes of the Middle East.
The world’s first farmers were most likely women who tended hearth, home, and hoe while men ranged widely to hunt diminishing herds, first selected grains for kernel size and heads that were less susceptible to normal shattering. Enduring methods of gathering crops from the Neolithic past to relatively modern times involved use of sickles to cut wild cereal grains that were harvested at least 10,000 years ago in the Karaca Dağ region of southern Turkey and throughout Mesopotamia. A Kebarian sickle handle found in northwestern Israel, carved of bone in the shape of gazelle, dates to about this time and is among the earliest examples of Upper Paleolithic sculpture. Crops tended by some five hundred generations have substantially nourished humanity ever since to form the basis of modern civilization.
The oldest extant complete sickle, fashioned with sharpened flints about 9,000 years ago and found in the Nahal Hemar Cave near the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley, is held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Bone sickles embedded with obsidian blades sharper than later serrated metal versions and embedded with cypress resin and honey that date to at least 2000 BC in the Middle Bronze Age. Agricultural folklorist and artist Eric Sloan considered the crescent-shaped sickle to be “the most aesthetically designed implement to have evolved from a thousand subtle variations” over millennia. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley imagines a proto-agrarian scene—likely one of many, when immense prehistoric mammals still roamed the Levantine valleys, Anatolian highlands, and beyond: “[T]he hand that grasped the stone by the river long ago would pluck a handful of grass seed and hold it contemplatively. In that moment, the golden towers of man, his swarming millions, his turning wheels, the vast learning of his packed libraries, would glimmer dimly there in the ancestor of wheat, a few seeds held in a muddy hand.”
James Michener personifies the emergence of ancient agriculture, surely rediscovered separately innumerable times throughout the prehistoric Middle East, in the novel which opens along a Galilean wadi near the Mediterranean coast in the early tenth century BC. The Family of Ur is one of six in a clan that separates in autumn for the men’s annual boar hunt while the women remain near their makeshift fictional village of Makor. Here Ur’s wife considers their recent conversation about the wild wheat that has long supplemented their diet: “By holding back some of the harvest and keeping it dry in a pouch of deerskin, the grains could be planted purposefully in the spring and the wheat could be made to grow exactly where and when it was needed, and with this discovery the family of Ur moved close to the beginnings of a self-sufficient society. They did not know it, but if a food supply could be insured, the speed of change would be almost unbelievable: within a few thousand years cities would be feasible and civilizations too.”
Through the woman’s revolutionary experience, Michener further ponders the profound ramifications of these events for world religion, social structure, and the environment. He then turns to Ur’s apprehension of his wife’s prescient labors: “In his new apotheosis as [land]owner Ur began to bring new fields into cultivation…. Men of the Family of Ur had always possessed an intuitive sense of the land, and now it was the reluctant farmer who discovered one of the essential mysteries of the earth on which all subsequent agriculture would depend….” The family’s primitive agrarian endeavors soon lead by trial and error to awareness of the grain’s need for adequate water and fertile soil. These experiences laid the foundation of an agrarian savvy that would be carried down for several hundred generations until the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and population expansion presented farmers with unprecedented new conditions of challenge and opportunity.