Ancient Grape Seeds Reveal Economic Collapse Amid Plague, Climate Change

Trash mounds inside Shivta. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Fuks)

(CN) — Grapes have long been cultivated throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, alongside other staples such as olives and cereals. During the time of the Byzantine and Roman empires, grapes provided farmers some of their highest return on investment thanks to the extensive regional wine trade.

Archaeologists detailed the ups and downs of the viticulture industry in ancient Israel’s Negev Desert in a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The authors investigated three trash mound sites, representing a period between the second and eighth centuries, which may hold clues to the operation of ancient Mediterranean supply chains.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the region experienced extensive economic and demographic changes. Trade in the Negev and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean grew substantially between the fourth and sixth centuries, before peaking and declining in the sixth century. These traders created a vast crisscrossing supply chain during the early Byzantine period at a time when most humans traded merely for survival.

“Israeli archaeology has shown the Byzantine period to be the peak period of settlement among all periods prior to modern times,” said Daniel Fuks, a doctoral student in the Department of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and lead author of the study. 

“The demographic and economic growth in the region during the fourth century pushed agricultural settlement into the desert, while an empire-wide rise in demand must have made it profitable to export local agricultural products even from such inland regions as the Negev Highlands.”

The technological prowess necessary to transform that arid desert into a thriving agricultural region is staggering even by today’s standards. Ancient engineers devised an intricate system of rainwater collection channels and check dams to funnel water into the Negev’s farmlands. These channels and dams required regular maintenance and repair following flash floods in the region, necessitating a substantial investment of manual labor.

In scouring the local trash mounds, Fuks and his team found a high proportion of grape seeds relative to cereal grains. This led them to conclude that between the fourth and sixth centuries farmers transitioned from mere subsistence farming to primarily growing grapes and producing wine for export. These seed to grain ratios also helped them determine when the decline in local viticulture took place.

Gaza wine, the Dom Perignon of its day, was especially popular throughout the late Antique period, and containers have since popped up as far away as Germany, France, Britain and Yemen. Pottery analysis of these containers can help determine when and where various products produced in the Negev eventually wound up.

Gaza jars, long and thin amphorae, were best for strapping to the back of a camel to transport goods long distances over land. By contrast, the other popular container of the time, bag-shaped jars, were bulbous and better suited for bulk storage. The ratio found of both types can help archaeologists determine the frequency of overland transportation of goods to port cities.

The subsequent decline of agriculture and trade has commonly been attributed to the Islamic conquest of the Levant in the seventh century and the Muslim prohibition on wine; however, the authors now believe commerce in the region substantially declined nearly a century earlier. 

They suggest the diminishing activity is more likely due to contracting markets, possibly triggered by climate change, plague or other sociopolitical changes. 

Volcanic activity is thought to have triggered the Late Antique Little Ice Age in the mid-seventh century, the coldest decade in Eurasia over the last 2,000 years. The region was also racked by the Justinian plague around the same time, an outbreak of Bubonic plague that killed as much as 20% of the local population.

Ultimately, the economic success of the Byzantine Negev proved unsustainable and represented an anomaly in the region, according to the authors. Within about two centuries the carefully laid channels, dams and dovecotes fell into disuse and the area reverted to its pattern of survival-subsistence strategies and smaller-scale settlements.

“This research offers a good example of proto-globalization, some 1,500 years ago,” Fuks adds, in an all-too-pertinent message for our own time. “The Negev was part of a much wider, Mediterranean mercantile market. However, this created certain vulnerabilities, to the extent that, when that market contracted — probably due to an outbreak of plague and/or climate change — the Negev agricultural economy collapsed. 

“Just like the current Covid-19 crisis, this research provides yet another warning call for the effects of plague and climate change in a globalized world. When such disasters struck, Byzantine Negev residents didn’t see them coming and had no way to prepare. We do. But will we?”

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