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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.


George Morris, Marco Martuzzi, Lora Fleming, Francesca Racioppi, and Srdan Matic

Adequate funding, careful planning, and good governance are central to delivering quality research in any field. Yet, the strategic directions for research, the mechanisms through which topics emerge, and the priorities assigned are equally deserving of attention. The need to understand the role played by the environment and to manage the physical environment and the human activities which bear upon it in pursuit of health, well-being, and equity are long established. These imperatives drive environmental health research as a key branch of scientific inquiry. Targeted research over many years, applying established methods, has informed society’s understanding of the toxic, infectious, allergenic, and physical threats to health from our physical surroundings and how these may be managed. Essentially hazard-focused research continues to deliver policy-relevant findings while simultaneously posing questions to be addressed through further research. Environmental health in the 21st century is, however, confronted by additional challenges of a rather different character. These include the need to understand, in a better and more policy-relevant way, the contributions of the environment to health and equity in complex interaction with other societal and individual-level influences (a so-called socioecological model). Also important are the potential of especially green and blue natural environments to improve health and well-being and promote equity, and the health implications of new approaches to production and consumption, such as the circular economy. Such challenges add breadth, depth, and richness to the environmental health research agenda, but when combined with the existential and public health threat of humanity’s detrimental impact on the Earth’s systems, they entail a need for new and better strategies for scientific inquiry. As we confront the challenges and uncertainties of the Anthropocene, the complexity expands, the stakes become sky-high, and diverse interests and values clash. Thus, the pressure on environmental health researchers to evolve and engage with stakeholders and reach out to the widest constituency of policy and practice has never been greater, nor has the need to organize to deliver. A disparate range of contextual factors have become pertinent when scoping the now significantly extended, territory for environmental health research. Moreover, the challenges of prioritizing among the candidate topics for investigation have scarcely been greater.