The ancient Near East was one of the earliest centers of agriculture in the world, giving rise to domesticated herd animals, cereals, and legumes that today have become primary agricultural staples worldwide. Although much attention has been paid to the origins of agriculture, identifying when, where, and how plants and animals were domesticated, equally important are the social and environmental consequences of agriculture. Shortly after the advent of domestication, agricultural economies quickly replaced hunting and gathering across Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Anatolia. The social and environmental context of this transition has profound implications for understanding the rise of social complexity and incipient urbanism in the Near East. Economic transformation accompanied the expansion of agriculture throughout small-scale societies of the Near East. These farmsteads and villages, as well as mobile pastoral groups, formed the backbone of agricultural production, which enabled tradable surpluses necessary for more expansive, community-scale economic networks. The role of such economies in the development of social complexity remains debated, but they did play an essential role in the rise of urbanism. Cities depended on agricultural specialists, including farmers and herders, to feed urban populations and to enable craft and ritual specializations that became manifest in the first cities of southern Mesopotamia. The environmental implications of these agricultural systems in the Mesopotamian lowlands, especially soil salinization, were equally substantial. The environmental implications of Mesopotamian agriculture are distinct from those accompanying the spread of agriculture to the Levant and Anatolia, where deforestation, erosion, and loss of biodiversity can be identified as the hallmarks of agricultural expansion. Agriculture is intimately connected with the rise of territorial empires across the Near East. Such empires often controlled agricultural production closely, for both economic and strategic ends, but the methods by which they encouraged the production of specific agricultural products and the adoption of particular agricultural strategies, especially irrigation, varied considerably between empires. By combining written records, archaeological data from surveys and excavation, and paleoenvironmental reconstruction, together with the study of plant and animal remains from archaeological sites occupied during multiple imperial periods, it is possible to reconstruct the environmental consequences of imperial agricultural systems across the Near East. Divergent environmental histories across space and time allow us to assess the sustainability of the agricultural policies of each empire and to consider how resulting environmental change contributed to the success or failure of those polities.
Despite millennia of success as hunters and gatherers, some human groups made a monumental transition to agricultural economies and more sedentary lifeways, broadly referred to as the “Neolithic.” This major tipping point in human history first occurred around 12,000 years ago in Southwest Asia and the eastern Mediterranean, where it is also the best documented. Much research has focused on the origins of agriculture, asking questions about why this event occurred after so much success at hunting and gathering. While early investigations concentrated on the economic significance of the Neolithic, studies in the late 20th century and continuing into the early 21st century also address what are perhaps more significant issues related to social, ritual, political, and ecological aspects of the Neolithic. Equally important is a focus on not only why the Neolithic first occurred, but also its consequences. These often are addressed in relation to the subsequent development of so-called civilizations and the environmental and social impacts that these had, but increasingly there are investigations of the consequences of the Neolithic within itself. These consequences refer to Neolithic societies on both the Near Eastern mainlands and adjacent Mediterranean islands. These include not only economic consequences but also ones related to social organization and complexity, trade, and health and disease. What is apparent is that consequential events during the Neolithic were not linear, following a predictable path. For example, there is strong evidence for substantial environmental deterioration during the Neolithic at sites such as ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan, where adaptive responses may have included divisions of domestic animal and plant resources. However, in Cyprus, where the Neolithic is now known to be as early as it was on the mainlands, evidence is limited for severe ecological degradation throughout the period. Thus, Neolithic consequences must be examined from a broad perspective, considering both successes and failures.