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The Dramatic History of Iraq in One Concise Volume
The destinies of Iraq and America will be tightly intertwined into the foreseeable future due to the U.S. incursion into this complex, perplexing desert nation -- the latest in a long history of violent outside interventions. A country sitting atop the world's largest supply of crude oil, Iraq will continue to play an essential role in global economics and in Middle Eastern politics for many decades to come. Therefore, it is more important than ever for Westerners to have a clear understanding of the volatile, enigmatic "Land of Two Rivers" -- its turbulent past and its looming possibilities. In this acutely penetrating and endlessly fascinating study, acknowledged Middle East authority William R. Polk presents a comprehensive history of the tumultuous events that shaped modern Iraq, while offering well-reasoned judgments on what we can expect there in the years to come.
Ancestors of inhabitants of today's Iraq began to emerge from the long shadows of prehistory about twelve thousand years ago. We cannot see them clearly, but we have some notion of how they lived. Gathered in groups of fifty or so people, they ranged along the slopes of the mountains that divide modern Iraq and Syria from Turkey. They did not live in permanent villages but sheltered under lean-tos that were covered with the skins of animals. The men hunted wild animals while the women gathered wild grasses from which they extracted the seed and pounded them into digestible bits.
Using crude sickles, faced with flint chips, they scoured the valleys to collect every edible thing, and, driven by hunger, they ate everything they found. Where archaeologists and paleobotanists have made studies of their campsites, they have found more than a hundred different kinds of seed. Animals and seed were usually plentiful, but each day brought risk. Their besetting fear must have been famine. Although on average their lives were reasonably easy, they lived literally hand to mouth, so a chance break in the weather might send the wild animals on which they depended out of reach or cause wild grasses to wither.
As they hunted or gleaned one area bare, whole clans would pick up their few possessions and move to a new location. Often they left caches of seed behind in clay-lined baskets or pits to which they planned to return. It is astonishing, in these circumstances, that they left a rich legacy: they became our first farmers.
No one knows exactly how they began this revolutionary new venture, but the agricultural revolution was probably partly accidental. From time to time, someone, perhaps a child, spilled a basket or dropped a handful of seed. Probably also, at least some of the caches of seed they left in storage pits or clay-lined baskets got rained on. Much, of course, would have just rotted. But, over the long years, some would spout into what modern gardeners call "volunteers." Watching this, the tribesmen--and particularly the women -- would naturally find it convenient that the volunteers were in or around their camps and waterholes where they were easy to collect.
At various times when and where rainfall was abundant in the hills along the northern reaches of what is now Iraq, some people began to winnow out seeds or sprouts. From the results, we know that what had probably been an accident certainly became a purposeful move. With pointed sticks like the ones they used to dig up tubers (and the men used to spear wild goats), they poked holes in the soft mud beside a waterhole or on the bank of a stream and dropped in a few grains. Probably the seed often failed to come up, but some did. The lucky or those who did it right were more apt to survive periodic famines than their more backward neighbors. Fear of starvation was a great teacher. Paleobotanists believe that within a few generations these adventurous --and hungry--tribal peoples achieved the first feats of domestication. So evident were the advantages of these experiments that the example spread widely from encampment to encampment. Sometime around 6000 b.c., "farming" began.
During these years also, the once-bountiful wild game had become harder to find and kill. Some of the little groups scattered along foothills and in the valleys of the Zagros -- the area that because of its relatively bountiful rainfall has become known as the Fertile Crescent -- had already begun a process that has been termed "management." Much as Laplanders today work with still-wild reindeer, they followed and partly managed herds of goats. Although goats are today reviled as destructive animals spreading ruin in fragile ecosystems, they offered great advantage to these early farmers. From accumulations of bones in their campsites, we know that goat meat was a big part of their diet. They killed enormous numbers, but some of the hunters must have figured out that killing more than they could eat just produced rotting carcasses that attracted dangerous carnivores. Since there was no advantage in killing all the animals, there might be a way to postpone the deaths of at least some of them. Keeping them was relatively easy since goats are extremely adaptable and thrive and breed with little forage. They were a major contribution to survival of those tribesmen who took the trouble, since in addition to meat, goats produce milk, which tribesmen began to drink; fiber for clothing; tallow for light and medicine; bone for tools; sinew for bindings; and dung for fuel.
Herding and then domestication of animals immediately created two new conditions that were of great and lasting influence. For the first time, little settlements had reasonably secure sources of a balanced diet. Fewer people died of hunger, and more lived longer. As populations increased, the initial trends were reinforced. Planting crops made staying put both possible and necessary, but managing or herding animals required some degree of movement. So divisions of labor, which had long been practiced, became more sharply defined. While the women, the elderly, and the very young remained fixed in the village, young men went out, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, to hunt or herd animals. This pattern was so stamped by generation after generation of daily experience that, until just a few years ago, it was the common way of life throughout the villages of Iraq.
Then, sometime about 6000 b.c., the mountains, foothills, and plains of Iraq became hotter and drier. Upland areas that had given rise to farming could no longer sustain the increasingly dense concentrations of people. To survive, many migrated to places where there was more water. Animals probably showed them the way in their yearly trek from the highlands in the summer down into the plains in winter. Following them, the hunters probably had already established temporary camps along the great rivers.
Excerpted from Understanding Iraq by William Polk Copyright © 2005 by William Polk. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 25, 2006
William Polk holds a doctorate in Middle East history and worked in the State Department. He brings his knowledge and experience (he has visited Iraq) to his work, and argues that many U.S. policies are similar to those the British employed in the 1920s.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2008
No text was provided for this review.