Date:

Dust May Have Controlled Ancient Human Civilization

When early humans began to travel out of Africa and spread into Eurasia over a hundred thousand years ago, a fertile region around the eastern Mediterranean Sea called the Levant served as a critical gateway between northern Africa and Eurasia.

A new study, published in Geology, shows that the existence of that oasis depended almost entirely on something we almost never think about: dust.

- Advertisement -

Dr. Rivka Amit, at the Geological Survey of Israel, and her team initially set out with a simple question: why are some soils around the Mediterranean thin and why are some thick?

Their investigation led them to discover not only that dust deposition played a critical role in forming thick soils in the Levant, but also that had the source of dust not changed 200,000 years ago, early humans might have had a much tougher time leaving Africa, and parts of the Fertile Crescent wouldn’t have been so hospitable for civilization to take root.

Thick soils tend to form in areas with wet, humid climates, and thin soils form in arid environments with lower weathering rates. But in the Mediterranean, where much of the bedrock is dissolvable carbonate, the opposite is true: wetter northern regions have thin, unproductive soils, and more arid southeastern regions have thick, productive soils.

Some scientists have attributed these patterns to differences in the rates of erosion, driven by human activity. But for Amit, who has been studying the area for years, a high erosion rate alone didn’t make sense. She challenged the existing hypotheses, reasoning that another factor–dust input–likely plays a critical role when weathering rates are too slow to form soils from bedrock.

- Advertisement -
Image Credit : Rivka Amit et al. and Geology

To assess the influence of dust on Mediterranean soils, Amit and her team needed to trace the dust back to its original source. They collected dust samples from soils in the region, as well as nearby and far-flung dust sources, and compared the samples’ grain size distribution. The team identified a key difference between areas with thin and thick soils: thin soils comprised only the finest grain sizes sourced from distant deserts like the Sahara, whereas the thicker, more productive soils had coarser dust called loess, sourced from the nearby Negev desert and its massive dune fields.

The thick soils in the eastern Mediterranean formed 200,000 years ago when glaciers covered large swaths of land, grinding up bedrock and creating an abundance of fine-grained sediments. “The whole planet was a lot dustier,” Amit said, which allowed extensive dune fields like those in the Negev to build up, creating new sources of dust and ultimately, thicker soils in places like the Levant.

Amit, then, had her answer: regions with thin soils simply hadn’t received enough loess to form thick, agriculturally productive soils, whereas the southeastern Mediterranean had. “Erosion here is less important,” she said. “What’s important is whether you get an influx of coarse [dust] fractions. [Without that], you get thin, unproductive soils.”

Amit didn’t stop there. She now knew that the thickest soils had received a large flux of coarse dust, leading to the area’s designation as the “land of milk and honey” for its agricultural productivity. Her next question was, had it always been like this?

She was surprised at what they found. Looking below the loess in the soil profile, they found a dearth of fine-grained sediments. “What was [deposited] before the loess were very thin soils,” she said. “It was a big surprise… The landscape was totally different, so I’m not sure that people would [have chosen] this area to live in because it was a harsh environment and [an] almost bare landscape, without much soil.” Without the changing winds and formation of the Negev dune field, then, the fertile area that served as a passage for early humans may have been too difficult to pass through and survive.

In the modern Mediterranean, the soils aren’t accumulating any more. “The dust source is cut off,” Amit explained, since the glaciers retreated in the Holocene, “now we’re only reworking the old loess.” Even if there were a dust source, it would take tens of thousands of years to rebuild soil there. That leaves these mountainous soils in a fragile state, and people living there must balance conservation and agricultural use. Employing responsible agricultural practices in the region, as terracing has been used for thousands of years, is critical for soil preservation if agriculture is to continue.

GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

Header Image Credit : Public Domain

- Advertisement -
spot_img
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
spot_img
spot_img

Mobile Application

spot_img

Related Articles

Stone box containing rare ceremonial offerings discovered at Tlatelolco

Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have discovered a stone box containing ceremonial offerings during excavations of Temple "I", also known as the Great Basement, at the Tlatelolco archaeological zone.

Excavation uncovers traces of the first bishop’s palace at Merseburg Cathedral Hill

Archaeologists from the State Office for Monument Preservation and Archaeology (LDA) Saxony-Anhalt have uncovered traces of the first bishop’s palace at the southern end of the Merseburg Cathedral Hill in Merseburg, Germany.

BU archaeologists uncover Iron Age victim of human sacrifice

Archaeologists from Bournemouth University have uncovered an Iron Age victim of human sacrifice in Dorset, England.

Archaeologists find ancient papyri with correspondence made by Roman centurions

Archaeologists from the University of Wrocław have uncovered ancient papyri that contains the correspondence of Roman centurions who were stationed in Egypt.

Study indicates that Firth promontory could be an ancient crannog

A study by students from the University of the Highlands and Islands has revealed that a promontory in the Loch of Wasdale in Firth, Orkney, could be the remains of an ancient crannog.

Archaeologists identify the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II

Archaeologists from Sorbonne University have identified the original sarcophagus of Ramesses II, otherwise known as Ramesses the Great.

Archaeologists find missing head of Deva from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom

Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority (APSARA) have discovered the long-lost missing head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom.

Archaeologists search crash site of WWII B-17 for lost pilot

Archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeology are excavating the crash site of a WWII B-17 Flying Fortress in an English woodland.