Hydraulic landscapes in Mesopotamia: the role of human niche construction

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Nevertheless, current Iraqi usage normally uses shatt to refer to the main "natural" channel as in Shatt al-Furat; Jadwal is employed to large canals usually mechanically excavated; sajiyah, naher or tubber refer to smaller canals excavated by hand. Alternatively, in standard Arabic nahar refers to the "natural channel" or qanat to larger mechanically excavated canals; saqiyah being reserved for small hand dug canals. Thus, modern usage does differentiate between artificial and natural channels, although it would seem that local farmers do not necessarily make such distinctions.

  2. 2.

    However, Upper Mesopotamia became the locus for the expansion of irrigation after around 1200 bc (Wilkinson and Rayne 2010).

  3. 3.

    Although sometimes farmers irrigate basin soils to encourage the growing of aquatic plants to feed cows or buffalo.

  4. 4.

    Reported to Jaafar Jotheri by his grandfather who chose to irrigate land around the lower relief Najaf marshes rather than the higher relief terrain close to Hilla.

  5. 5.

    This sequence, sampled by Jaafar Jotheri, appears to be part of a shallower sequence in the distal part of the levee; more details of the sedimentary context will be presented in the author's Ph.D. thesis and a future publication.

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Correspondence to Jaafar Jotheri.

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Wilkinson, T.J., Rayne, L. & Jotheri, J. Hydraulic landscapes in Mesopotamia: the role of human niche construction. Water Hist 7, 397–418 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12685-015-0127-9

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Keywords

  • Human niche construction
  • Irrigation
  • Mesopotamia
  • Sustainability