Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent (Arabic: الهلال الخصيب) is a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East, spanning modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, together with the northern region of Kuwait, southeastern region of Turkey and the western portion of Iran.[1][2] Some authors also include Cyprus and Northern Egypt.

Map of the Fertile Crescent
A 15th century copy of Ptolemy's fourth Asian map, depicting the area known as the Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent is believed to be the very first region where settled farming emerged as people started the process of clearance and modification of natural vegetation to grow newly domesticated plants as crops. Early human civilizations such as Sumer in Mesopotamia flourished as a result.[3] Technological advances in the region include the development of agriculture and the use of irrigation, of writing, the wheel, and glass, most emerging first in Mesopotamia.


1916 map of the Fertile Crescent by James H. Breasted, who popularised usage of the phrase.

The term "Fertile Crescent" was popularized by archaeologist James Henry Breasted in Outlines of European History (1914) and Ancient Times, A History of the Early World (1916).[4][5][6][7][8][9] He wrote:[4]

It lies like an army facing south, with one wing stretching along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and the other reaching out to the Persian Gulf, while the center has its back against the northern mountains. The end of the western wing is Palestine; Assyria makes up a large part of the center; while the end of the eastern wing is Babylonia. [...] This great semicircle, for lack of a name, may be called the Fertile Crescent.

There no single term for this region in antiquity. At the time that Breasted was writing, it roughly corresponded with the territories of the Ottoman Empire ceded to Britain and France in the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Historian Thomas Scheffler has noted that Breasted was following a trend in Western geography to "overwrite the classical geographical distinctions between continents, countries and landscapes with large, abstract spaces", drawing parallels with the work of Halford Mackinder, who conceptualised Eurasia as a 'pivot area' surrounded by an 'inner crescent', Alfred Thayer Mahan's Middle East, and Friedrich Naumann's Mitteleuropa.[10]

In current usage, the Fertile Crescent includes Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, as well as the surrounding portions of Turkey and Iran. In addition to the Tigris and Euphrates, riverwater sources include the Jordan River. The inner boundary is delimited by the dry climate of the Syrian Desert to the south. Around the outer boundary are the Anatolian and Armenian highlands to the north, the Sahara Desert to the west, Sudan to the south, and the Iranian plateau to the east.

Biodiversity and climate

As crucial as rivers and marshlands were to the rise of civilization in the Fertile Crescent, they were not the only factor. The area is geographically important as the "bridge" between North Africa and Eurasia, which has allowed it to retain a greater amount of biodiversity than either Europe or North Africa, where climate changes during the Ice Age led to repeated extinction events when ecosystems became squeezed against the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Saharan pump theory posits that this Middle Eastern land bridge was extremely important to the modern distribution of Old World flora and fauna, including the spread of humanity.

The area has borne the brunt of the tectonic divergence between the African and Arabian plates and the converging Arabian and Eurasian plates, which has made the region a very diverse zone of high snow-covered mountains.

The Fertile Crescent had many diverse climates, and major climatic changes encouraged the evolution of many "r" type annual plants, which produce more edible seeds than "K" type perennial plants. The region's dramatic variety in elevation gave rise to many species of edible plants for early experiments in cultivation. Most importantly, the Fertile Crescent was home to the eight Neolithic founder crops important in early agriculture (i.e., wild progenitors to emmer wheat, einkorn, barley, flax, chick pea, pea, lentil, bitter vetch), and four of the five most important species of domesticated animals—cows, goats, sheep, and pigs; the fifth species, the horse, lived nearby.[11] The Fertile Crescent flora comprises a high percentage of plants that can self-pollinate, but may also be cross-pollinated.[11] These plants, called "selfers", were one of the geographical advantages of the area because they did not depend on other plants for reproduction.[11]


Area of the fertile crescent, circa 7500 BCE, with main sites of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. The area of Mesopotamia proper was not yet settled by humans. Includes Göbekli Tepe, a site in modern-day Turkey that is dated circa 9000 BCE.

As well as possessing many sites with the skeletal and cultural remains of both pre-modern and early modern humans (e.g., at Tabun and Es Skhul caves in Israel), later Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and Epipalaeolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherers (the Natufians); the Fertile Crescent is most famous for its sites related to the origins of agriculture. The western zone around the Jordan and upper Euphrates rivers gave rise to the first known Neolithic farming settlements (referred to as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (PPNA)), which date to around 9,000 BCE and includes very ancient sites such as Göbekli Tepe, Chogha Golan, and Jericho (Tell es-Sultan).

This region, alongside Mesopotamia (Greek for "between rivers", between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, lies in the east of the Fertile Crescent), also saw the emergence of early complex societies during the succeeding Bronze Age. There is also early evidence from the region for writing and the formation of hierarchical state level societies. This has earned the region the nickname "The cradle of civilization".

It is in this region where the first libraries appeared about 4,500 years ago. The oldest known libraries are found in Nippur (in Sumer) and Ebla (in Syria), both from c. 2500 BCE.[12]

Both the Tigris and Euphrates start in the Taurus Mountains of what is modern-day Turkey. Farmers in southern Mesopotamia had to protect their fields from flooding each year. Northern Mesopotamia had sufficient rain to make some farming possible. To protect against flooding they made levees.[13]

Since the Bronze Age, the region's natural fertility has been greatly extended by irrigation works, upon which much of its agricultural production continues to depend. The last two millennia have seen repeated cycles of decline and recovery as past works have fallen into disrepair through the replacement of states, to be replaced under their successors. Another ongoing problem has been salination—gradual concentration of salt and other minerals in soils with a long history of irrigation.

Early domestications

Prehistoric seedless figs were discovered at Gilgal I in the Jordan Valley, suggesting that fig trees were being planted some 11,400 years ago.[14] Cereals were already grown in Syria as long as 9,000 years ago.[15] Small cats (Felis silvestris) also were domesticated in this region.[16] Also, legumes including peas, lentils and chickpea were domesticated in this region.

Domesticated animals include the cattle, sheep, goat, domestic pig, cat, and domestic goose.

Cosmopolitan diffusion

Maunsell's map, a Pre-World War I British Ethnographical Map of the Fertile Crescent area
Diffusion of agriculture from the Fertile Crescent after 9000 BCE

Modern analyses[17][18] comparing 24 craniofacial measurements reveal a relatively diverse population within the pre-Neolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age Fertile Crescent,[17] supporting the view that several populations occupied this region during these time periods.[17][19][20][21][22][23][24] Similar arguments do not hold true for the Basques and Canary Islanders of the same time period, as the studies demonstrate those ancient peoples to be "clearly associated with modern Europeans". Additionally, no evidence from the studies demonstrates Cro-Magnon influence, contrary to former suggestions.[17]

The studies further suggest a diffusion of this diverse population away from the Fertile Crescent, with the early migrants moving away from the Near East—westward into Europe and North Africa, northward to Crimea, and northeastward to Mongolia.[17] They took their agricultural practices with them and interbred with the hunter-gatherers whom they subsequently came in contact with while perpetuating their farming practices. This supports prior genetic[25][26][27][28][29] and archaeological[17][30][31][32][33][34] studies which have all arrived at the same conclusion.

Consequently, contemporary in situ peoples absorbed the agricultural way of life of those early migrants who ventured out of the Fertile Crescent. This is contrary to the suggestion that the spread of agriculture disseminated out of the Fertile Crescent by way of sharing of knowledge. Instead, the view now supported by a preponderance of evidence is that it occurred by actual migration out of the region, coupled with subsequent interbreeding with indigenous local populations whom the migrants came in contact with.[17]

The studies show also that not all present day Europeans share strong genetic affinities to the Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent; the closest ties to the Fertile Crescent rest with Southern Europeans. The same study further demonstrates all present-day Europeans to be closely related.[17]


Linguistically, the Fertile Crescent was a region of great diversity. Historically, Semitic languages generally prevailed in the modern regions of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Sinai and the fringes of southeast Turkey and northwest Iran, as well as the Sumerian (a language isolate) in Iraq, whilst in the mountainous areas to the east and north a number of generally unrelated language isolates were found, including; Elamite, Gutian and Kassite in Iran, and Hattic, Kaskian and Hurro-Urartian in Turkey. The precise affiliation of these, and their date of arrival, remain topics of scholarly discussion. However, given lack of textual evidence for the earliest era of prehistory, this debate is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

The evidence that does exist suggests that, by the third millennium BCE and into the second, several language groups already existed in the region. These included:[35][36][37][38][39][40]

Links between Hurro-Urartian and Hattic and the indigenous languages of the Caucasus have frequently been suggested, but are not generally accepted.

See also


  1. Haviland, William A.; Prins, Harald E. L.; Walrath, Dana; McBride, Bunny (13 January 2013). The Essence of Anthropology (3rd ed.). Belmont, California: Cengage Learning. p. 104. ISBN 978-1111833442.
  2. Ancient Mesopotamia/India. Culver City, California: Social Studies School Service. 2003. p. 4. ISBN 978-1560041665.
  3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Fertile Crescent". Encyclopædia Britannica. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 28 January 2018. {{cite encyclopedia}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  4. Abt, Jeffrey (2011). American Egyptologist: the life of James Henry Breasted and the creation of his Oriental Institute. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 193–194, 436. ISBN 978-0-226-0011-04.
  5. Goodspeed, George Stephen (1904). A History of the ancient world: for high schools and academies. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 5–6.
  6. Breasted, James Henry (1914). "Earliest man, the Orient, Greece, and Rome" (PDF). In Robinson, James Harvey; Breasted, James Henry; Beard, Charles A. (eds.). Outlines of European history, Vol. 1. Boston: Ginn. pp. 56–57. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09. "The Ancient Orient" map is inserted between pages 56 and 57.
  7. Breasted, James Henry (1916). Ancient times, a history of the early world: an introduction to the study of ancient history and the career of early man (PDF). Boston: Ginn. pp. 100–101. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09. "The Ancient Oriental World" map is inserted between pages 100 and 101.
  8. Clay, Albert T. (1924). "The so-called Fertile Crescent and desert bay". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 44: 186–201. doi:10.2307/593554. JSTOR 593554.
  9. Kuklick, Bruce (1996). "Essay on methods and sources". Puritans in Babylon: the ancient Near East and American intellectual life, 1880–1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 241. ISBN 978-0-691-02582-7. Textbooks...The true texts brought all of these strands together, the most important being James Henry Breasted, Ancient Times: A History of the Early World (Boston, 1916), but a predecessor, George Stephen Goodspeed, A History of the Ancient World (New York, 1904), is outstanding. Goodspeed, who taught at Chicago with Breasted, antedated him in the conception of a 'crescent' of civilization.
  10. Scheffler, Thomas (2003-06-01). "'Fertile Crescent', 'Orient', 'Middle East': The Changing Mental Maps of Southwest Asia". European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire. 10 (2): 253–272. doi:10.1080/1350748032000140796. ISSN 1350-7486. S2CID 6707201.
  11. Diamond, Jared (March 1997). Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1st ed.). W.W. Norton & Company. p. 480. ISBN 978-0-393-03891-0. OCLC 35792200.
  12. Murray, Stuart (9 July 2009). Basbanes, Nicholas A.; Davis, Donald G. (eds.). The Library: An Illustrated History. Internet Reference Services Quarterly. Vol. 15. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. pp. 69–70. doi:10.1080/10875300903535149. ISBN 9781628733228. OCLC 277203534. S2CID 61069680.
  13. Beck, Roger B.; Black, Linda; Krieger, Larry S.; Naylor, Phillip C.; Shabaka, Dahia Ibo (1999). World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell. p. 1082. ISBN 978-0-395-87274-1.
  14. Norris, Scott (1 June 2006). "Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture". National Geographic Society. National Geographic News. Retrieved 6 March 2017.
  15. "Genographic Project: The Development of Agriculture". National Geographic. Retrieved 14 April 2016.
  16. Driscoll, Carlos A.; Menotti-Raymond, Marilyn; Roca, Alfred L.; Hupe, Karsten; Johnson, Warren E.; Geffen, Eli; Harley, Eric H.; Delibes, Miguel; Pontier, Dominique; Kitchener, Andrew C.; Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; O'Brien, Stephen J.; Macdonald, David W. (27 July 2007). "The near eastern origin of cat domestication". Science. 317 (5837): 519–523. Bibcode:2007Sci...317..519D. doi:10.1126/science.1139518. PMC 5612713. PMID 17600185.
  17. Brace, C. Loring; Seguchi, Noriko; Quintyn, Conrad B.; Fox, Sherry C.; Nelson, A. Russell; Manolis, Sotiris K.; Qifeng, Pan (2006). "The questionable contribution of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age to European craniofacial form". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 103 (1): 242–247. Bibcode:2006PNAS..103..242B. doi:10.1073/pnas.0509801102. PMC 1325007. PMID 16371462.
  18. Ricaut, F. X.; Waelkens, M. (Aug 2008). "Cranial Discrete Traits in a Byzantine Population and Eastern Mediterranean Population Movements". Human Biology. 80 (5): 535–564. doi:10.3378/1534-6617-80.5.535. PMID 19341322. S2CID 25142338.
  19. Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East
  20. Barker, G. (2002). Bellwood, P.; Renfrew, C. (eds.). Transitions to farming and pastoralism in North Africa. Examining the Farming/Language Dispersal Hypothesis. pp. 151–161.
  21. Bar-Yosef O (1987), "Pleistocene connections between Africa and SouthWest Asia: an archaeological perspective", The African Archaeological Review; Chapter 5, pp 29–38
  22. Kislev, ME; Hartmann, A; Bar-Yosef, O (2006). "Early domesticated fig in the Jordan Valley". Science. 312 (5778): 1372–1374. Bibcode:2006Sci...312.1372K. doi:10.1126/science.1125910. PMID 16741119. S2CID 42150441.
  23. Lancaster, Andrew (2009). "Y Haplogroups, Archaeological Cultures and Language Families: a Review of the Multidisciplinary Comparisons using the case of E-M35" (PDF). Journal of Genetic Genealogy. 5 (1). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-05-06. Retrieved 2010-02-23.
  24. Findings include remains of food items carried to the Levant from North Africa —— Parthenocarpic figs and Nile shellfish (please refer to Natufian culture#Long-distance exchange).
  25. Chicki, L; Nichols, RA; Barbujani, G; Beaumont, MA (2002). "Y genetic data support the Neolithic demic diffusion model". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 99 (17): 11008–11013. Bibcode:2002PNAS...9911008C. doi:10.1073/pnas.162158799. PMC 123201. PMID 12167671.
  26. Estimating the Impact of Prehistoric Admixture on the Genome of Europeans, Dupanloup et al., 2004
  27. Semino, O.; Magri, C.; Benuzzi, G.; et al. (May 2004). "Origin, Diffusion, and Differentiation of Y-Chromosome Haplogroups E and J: Inferences on the Neolithization of Europe and Later Migratory Events in the Mediterranean Area". Am. J. Hum. Genet. 74 (5): 1023–34. doi:10.1086/386295. PMC 1181965. PMID 15069642.
  28. "Paleolithic and Neolithic lineages in the European mitochondrial gene pool", Cavalli-Sforza 1997.
  29. "Clines of nuclear DNA markers suggest a largely Neolithic ancestry of the European gene", Chikhi 1997.
  30. M. Zvelebil, in Hunters in Transition: Mesolithic Societies and the Transition to Farming, M. Zvelebil (editor), Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (1986) pp. 5–15, 167–188.
  31. P. Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Blackwell: Malden, MA (2005).
  32. Dokládal, M.; Brožek, J. (1961). "Physical Anthropology in Czechoslovakia: Recent Developments". Curr. Anthropol. 2 (5): 455–477. doi:10.1086/200228. S2CID 161324951.
  33. Bar-Yosef, O. (1998). "The Natufian culture in the Levant, threshold to the origins of agriculture". Evol. Anthropol. 6 (5): 159–177. doi:10.1002/(sici)1520-6505(1998)6:5<159::aid-evan4>3.0.co;2-7. S2CID 35814375.
  34. Zvelebil, M. (1989). "On the transition to farming in Europe, or what was spreading with the Neolithic: a reply to Ammerman (1989)". Antiquity. 63 (239): 379–383. doi:10.1017/s0003598x00076110. S2CID 162882505.
  35. Steadman & McMahon 2011, p. 233.
  36. Steadman & McMahon 2011, p. 522.
  37. Steadman & McMahon 2011, p. 556.
  38. Potts 2012, p. 28.
  39. Potts 2012, p. 570.
  40. Potts 2012, p. 584.
  41. Rubio, Gonzalo (January 1999). "On the Alleged "Pre-Sumerian Substratum"". Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 51: 1–16. doi:10.2307/1359726. JSTOR 1359726. S2CID 163985956.
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