Water History

, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp 397–418 | Cite as

Hydraulic landscapes in Mesopotamia: the role of human niche construction

  • T. J. Wilkinson
  • Louise Rayne
  • Jaafar Jotheri


Human niche construction emphasizes the capacity of organisms to modify their environment and thereby influence their own and other species’ evolution. For the hydraulic landscapes of southern Mesopotamia we employ geoarchaeological data, remote sensing and ancient texts to suggest that major irrigation systems in the central Mesopotamian plains were a form of herringbone system and that they developed through human niche construction as a result of the elaboration of crevasse splays along raised levees. The remarkable duration of these systems (some 4000 plus years) suggest that (a) they were sustainable over many millennia and (b) the short component canals could be managed by small lineages. However, equally they could be brought under the administration of the state.


Human niche construction Irrigation Mesopotamia Sustainability 


  1. Adams RM (1965) Land behind Baghdad. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  2. Adams RM (1981) Heartland of cities. Surveys of ancient settlement and land use on the central floodplain of the Euphrates. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  3. Adams RM, Nissen H (1972) The Uruk countryside. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  4. Algaze G (2008) Ancient mesopotamia at the dawn of civilization. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Altaweel M (2013) Simulating the effects of salinization on irrigation agriculture in southern Mesopotamia. In: Wilkinson TJ, Gibson M, Widell M (eds) Models of Mesopotamian landscapes: how small-scale processes contributed to the growth of early civilizations. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp 219–238 (BAR S2552)Google Scholar
  6. Anastasiou E, Lorentz KO, Stein GJ, Mitchell PD (2014) Prehistoric schistosomiasis parasite found in the Middle East. Lancet Infectious Dis 14(7):553–554CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Arthur WB (2009) The nature of technology: What it is and how it evolves. Allen Lane, LondonGoogle Scholar
  8. Bagg AM (2012) Irrigation. In: Potts DT (ed) A companion to the archaeology of the ancient near East. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, pp 261–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Buringh P (1960) Soils and soil conditions in Iraq. Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Agriculture, BaghdadGoogle Scholar
  10. Charles MP (1988) Irrigation in lowland Mesopotamia. Bull Sum Agric 4:1–39Google Scholar
  11. Civil M (1994) The farmer’s instructions. Aula Orientalis, BarcelonaGoogle Scholar
  12. Cole SW (1994) Marsh formation in the Borsippa region and the course of the lower Euphrates. J Near East Stud 53:81–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cotha Consulting Engineers (1959) Drainage investigations in Gharraf East area. Final Report, Vol. II Appendix 2. Republic of Iraq, Ministry of Agriculture, Directorate General of Irrigation, BaghdadGoogle Scholar
  14. Eger AA (2011) The swamps of home: marsh formation and settlement in the early medieval near East. J East Stud 70(1):55–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ertsen MW (2010) Structuring properties of irrigation systems: understanding relations between humans and hydraulics through modelling. Water Hist 2(2):165–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fernea RA (1970) Shaykh and Effendi. Changing patterns of authority among the El Shabana of southern Iraq. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  17. Florsheim JL, Mount JF (2002) Restoration of floodplain topography by sand-splay complex formation in response to intentional levee breaches, Lower Cosumnes River, California. Geomorphology 44:67–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Heyvaert VMA, Walstra J, Verkinderen P, Weerts HJT, Ooghe B (2012) The role of human interference on the channel shifting of the river Karkheh in the Lower Khuzestan plain (Mesopotamia, SW Iran). Q Int 251:52–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hritz C (2004) The hidden landscape of southern Mesopotamia. Akkadica 125:93–106Google Scholar
  20. Hritz C (2010) Tracing settlement patterns and channel systems in southern Mesopotamia using remote sensing. J Field Archaeol 35(2):184–203CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hritz C, Wilkinson TJ (2006) Using shuttle radar topography to map ancient water channels. Antiquity 80:415–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hunt RC (1988) Hydraulic management in southern Mesopotamia in Sumerian times. Bull Sum Agric 4(1):189–206Google Scholar
  23. IMWR (2002) The Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources internal report number 3423. The Ministry Library, BaghdadGoogle Scholar
  24. Jablonka E (2011) The entangled (and constructed) human bank. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 366(1566):784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jacobsen T (1960) The waters of Ur. Iraq 22:174–185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kaptijn E (2010) Communality and power irrigation in the Zerqa Triangle, Jordan. Water Hist 2:145–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kendal J, Tehrani JJ, Odling-Smee J (2011) Human niche construction in interdisciplinary focus. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 366(1566):785–792CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lansing JS, Fox KM (2011) Niche construction on Bali: the gods of the countryside. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 366(1566):927–934CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mabry JB (ed) (1996) Canals and communities: small-scale irrigation systems. University of Arizona Press, TusconGoogle Scholar
  30. Makaske B (2001) Anastomosing rivers: a review of their classification, origin and sedimentary products. Earth-Sci Rev 53:149–196CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mirak-Weissbach M (1993) Malthusian elites fume at Iraq’s construction of ‘Third River project’. EIR (International) 20(7):37–38Google Scholar
  32. Netting RMcC (1993) Smallholders, householders: farm families and the ecology of intensive, sustainable agriculture. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  33. O’Brien MJ, Laland KN (2012) Genes, culture, and agriculture: an example of human niche construction. Curr Anthropol 53(4):434–470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Odling-Smee J (2010) Niche inheritance. In: Pigliucci M, Muller GB (eds) Evolution: the extended synthesis. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 175–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Odling-Smee J, Laland KN, Feldman MW (2003) Niche construction: the neglected process in evolution. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  36. Pemberton W, Postgate JN, Smyth RF (1988) Canals and bunds, ancient and modern. Bull Sum Agric IV:207–221Google Scholar
  37. Petrie CA, Thomas KD (2012) The topographic and environmental context of the earliest village sites in western South Asia. Antiquity 86:1055–1067CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pollock S (1999) Ancient Mesopotamia: the Eden that never was. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  39. Postgate JN (1994) Early Mesopotamia. Society and economy at the dawn of history. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  40. Pournelle JR (2003) Marshland of cities: deltaic landscapes and the evolution of early Mesopotamian civilization. PhD dissertation, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, San DiegoGoogle Scholar
  41. Pournelle JR (2013) Physical geography. In: Crawford H (ed) The Sumerian world. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 13–32Google Scholar
  42. Powell MA (1988) Evidence for agriculture and waterworks in Babylonian mathematical texts. Bull Sum Agric 4:161–172Google Scholar
  43. Rost S (2011) Irrigation management in the Ur III period: a reconsideration based on a case study of the maintenance of the íd-NINA-šè-DU Canal of the province Lagaš. In Selz GJ, Wagensonner K (eds) Die empirische Dimension altorientalischer Forschungen. Wiener Offene Orientalistik, 8, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  44. Rost S, Hamdani AA, George S (2011) Traditional dam construction in 20th century Iraq: a possible analogy for the understanding of ancient irrigation practices in Mesopotamia. Iraq 73:201–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shennan S (2011) Property and wealth inequality as cultural niche construction. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 366(1566):918–926CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sherratt A (1980) Water, soils and seasonality in early cereal cultivation. World Archaeol 11(3):313–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Smith BD (2011) General patterns of niche construction and the management of ‘wild’ plant and animal resources by small-scale pre-industrial societies. Philos Trans R Soc Ser B 366(1566):836–848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tennie C, Call J, Tomasello M (2009) Ratcheting up the ratchet: on the evolution of cumulative culture. Philos Trans R Soc B 364:2405–2415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Thesiger W (1964) The Marsh Arabs. Longman, LondonGoogle Scholar
  50. Ur JA (2013) Patterns of settlement in Sumer and Akkad. In: Crawford H (ed) The Sumerian world. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 131–155Google Scholar
  51. Verhoeven K (1998) Geomorphological research in the Mesopotamian floodplains. In: Gasche H, Tanret M (eds) Changing watercourses in Babylonia.Towards a reconstruction of the ancient environment in lower Mesopotamia. University of Ghent, Oriental Institute Publications, Ghent and Chicago, pp 159–245Google Scholar
  52. Widell M, Hritz C, Ur JA, Wilkinson TJ (2013) Land use of the model communities. In: Wilkinson TJ, Gibson M, Widell M (eds) Models of Mesopotamian landscapes: how small-scale processes contributed to the growth of early civilizations. Archaeopress, Oxford, pp 56–80 (BAR S2552)Google Scholar
  53. Wilkinson TJ (1994) The structure and dynamics of dry farming states in Upper Mesopotamia. Curr Anthropol 35(1):483–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wilkinson TJ (2003) Archaeological landscapes of the Near East. University of Arizona Press, TucsonGoogle Scholar
  55. Wilkinson TJ (2013) Hydraulic landscapes and irrigation systems of Sumer. In: Crawford H (ed) The Sumerian world. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 33–54Google Scholar
  56. Wilkinson TJ, Rayne L (2010) Hydraulic landscapes and imperial power in the Near East. Water History 2(2):115–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wilkinson TJ, Boucharlat R, Ertsen MW, Gillmore G, Kennet D, Magee P, Rezakhani K, De Schacht T (2012) From human niche construction to imperial power: long-term trends in ancient Iranian water systems. Water Hist 4:155–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Yacoub SY (2011) Stratigraphy of the Mesopotamia Plain. Iraqi Bull Geol Mineral Spec Issue 4 (Geology of the Mesopotamia Plain): 47–82Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • T. J. Wilkinson
    • 1
  • Louise Rayne
    • 2
  • Jaafar Jotheri
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyDurham UniversityDurhamUK
  2. 2.Department of GeographyDurham UniversityDurhamUK
  3. 3.Department of Earth SciencesDurham UniversityDurhamUK
  4. 4.Department of ArchaeologyAl-Qadisiyah UniversityAl DiwaniyahIraq

Personalised recommendations