Archaeologists have uncovered three ancient, fortified settlements and what may be the earliest evidence of artificial irrigation systems while excavating in the basalt desert of Jordan.
The sites, which date back approximately 6000 years to the late fifth and fourth millennia BCE, were located atop volcanic hills at the edge of north-eastern Jordan during surveys between 2010 and 2015.
The archaeologist heading the study for the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute said the permanent settlements were a surprising find, and conflicted with earlier hypotheses that pastoralists had only visited the area for specific times of the year – usually during the wet season.
“The interesting thing is that this remote region comes suddenly into our focus as an area where, at a very early stage, high technology either developed or appeared,” Bernd Muller-Neuhof told the ABC.
The findings have also raised a number of questions for the survey, including what kind of climate these residents faced in the fourth millennium BCE and why people chose to settle there, according to Dr Muller-Neuhof.
“If we assume current climate conditions [were in place back then], just as a hypothesis, then the opportunities would have been better than nowadays,” he says, adding that climate change and overgrazing have led to degradation of the region.
The fortified sites also hosted a sophisticated system of diverting rainfall into terraced gardens, where they flooded sediments for agricultural purposes.
“There is some evidence – which is not clear yet – that they had also built wells in [wadi beds] and used lava tubes [natural conduits formed by flowing lava], which fill up in the rain season, to hold water,” he said.
This system of canals and dams predates Mesopotamian irrigation and could be the earliest example of irrigation farming using rainwater in the Middle East.
But Dr Muller-Neuhof was quick to point out that much of the research is not really clear yet, suggesting the next step of the project was to actually solve the problem of water.
Why did inhabitants choose to settle in remote desert?
The fortified sites also revealed extensive socioeconomic activity in the area, including evidence of flint mining in a nearby region and advanced agricultural techniques.
“The major economic activities were most probably husbandry of sheep and goats, pastoralism – not only for serving their own needs but also exports to other settlements,” Dr Muller-Neuhof said.
“We know from the mid fourth millennium in the region of southern Iraq that the Uruk culture there … started to develop a textile industry.
“It is the first place we can trace mass production in textiles, leather and agriculture in the Mesopotamia era.
“For these desert areas, sitting on the fringes of these fertile alluvial lowlands, they were involved in the production of animal products – which means wool, leather, meat, cheese or something like that.
“That was probably the major things they did.”
But while the inhabitants were able to engineer a sustainable life for themselves, the question remains as to why they decided to settle in the arid region in the first place.
Dr Muller-Neuhof said the answer remains a “mystery”.
“We don’t know it yet … We have no idea yet why these people went there and why they built these huge fortifications, huge villages because this region was, to us, always a quite remote region.”
Discoveries from inside the dwellings – such as small fireplaces, charcoal and some flint tools – also reveal very little about the specific culture of the inhabitants, since neighbouring communities used similar items during that time.
Ambiguity also surrounds the use of the fortified structures, with researches failing to find any evidence of warfare in the area.
“When they left the village it was very controlled, there is no evidence yet of warfare although we have these huge fortifications,” he said.
But despite the mystery surrounding the settlements, the findings have brought the region sharply into archaeological focus as an area of advanced early technological achievement.