The impact of Man: 4,000 years of environmental damage at Acre

oldport-akkoForget the gauzy notion that early settlers existed in harmony with the environment. Urbanization was destructive, archaeologists in Israel have shown.

Some 5,000 years ago, the Mediterranean seaport city of Akko started to come into being. Following millennia of sparse habitation, an urbanized population built a stone rampart fortification on Tel Akko, also known as Napoleon Hill. The tell is situated at the south-eastern entrance to the modern city of Akko, or Acre as it was called during the British Mandate.
Based on the town’s favorable location on the coastline, the inhabitants traded along the Syro-Lebanese coast as well as with Egypt and Cyprus.

Recent research has made a startling finding. In stark contrast to romantic theories about ancient man living in harmony with nature, the Middle Bronze Age urbanized Akko, some 4,000 years ago, had a dramatic effect on the environment.

Within just centuries, the city’s process of accelerated urbanization starkly transformed the nature of the area. Before man settled down, the area by the sea that became Akko had been covered with indigenous forest, featuring mainly oak and pine. After his arrival, the trees were replaced by the low brush that characterizes the plain.

The cause of the changes, says the team of researchers from Israel and France, is one and only one: human settlement.

The death of the forest

In their paper published in Nature Scientific Reports, a French team led by Profs. David Kaniewsky and Christophe Morhange, alongside the Israeli scientists Prof. Michal Artzy (at right), head of the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies at the University of Haifa, who is presently carrying out a landscape project and co-directing the archaeological excavation of Tel Akko with Prof. Ann Killebrew and Dr. Dov Zviely of the Recanati Institute debunk the notion that ancient urbanization developed in a sustainable way, within the environmental constraints of local natural resources.

Climate change cannot be blamed for the changes found in the ecosystem of Akko and its environs circa 4,000 years ago, the scientists argue. There are no signs of a drop in precipitation levels at that time that could have caused the ecosystem to change from Mediterranean forest to savannah.

On the contrary, 4,000 years ago, research has shown that precipitation increased throughout the general region, from Akko to the Dead Sea and beyond. The Nile Valley suffered from flooding, and humidity on the Syrian coastline increased. No climate stressor lay behind the transformation of the setting.

In the case of Akko, the changes to the surrounding environment took place after the urbanization, the scientists demonstrate: The main stressor on the environment was man. “The first interventions, substitutions and transformations of the pristine Mediterranean forest promptly followed the occurrence of the earliest urban structures,” they write.

Hot in the city tonight

The concentration of economic activity and farming crowding around the anchorage, which is believed to have been located at the southern confines of the tell, stressed the local ecosystem, say the scientists. The natural systems surrounding the tell were shrinking and the biotic imbalance grew worse.

It is true that the advent of urbanization increased the variety of plants and animals in the area, say the archaeologists – but indigenous systems unique to the particular landscape suffered, and their resilience deteriorated.

Urbanization of the site also raised the temperature in Akko and its surroundings.

Akko 2Today’s cities are notoriously hotter, by several degrees, than their immediate natural surroundings, and construction also increased temperatures in Akko, as the stone absorbed more of the sun’s energy than natural vegetation would have, and stored the energy too. But a key cause lay in something else, say the researchers.

The brisk growth and development of the urban population dramatically increased the need for fresh water, and meanwhile, farming was changing the nature of extensive swathes of land. Natural water resources had difficulty replenishing, which could have otherwise diminished the environmental damage.

Thus, man reduced the amount of water in the area and the extent of natural vegetation as well. The result was a rise in average temperature, as vegetation cools the environment through water evaporating from the plants.

Their findings from Tel Akko, say the researchers, challenge the conventional wisdom that the early stages of urban development – which is when the first urban settlement arose in Akko – were a model of sustainable development that did not damage the environment. The finds show that the very mechanisms depleting and damaging natural resources today applied as early as 4,000 years ago, even if the methods of construction and agricultural were very different, as were the proportions.

It bears saying that the ecological and settlement history of the Akko area varied with the effects of climatic and geo-morphological changes. At times it was a bustling trading seaside metropolis, at others a drowsy town. It was an important center, indeed the replacement of Jerusalem as the capital city of the Crusaders until 650 years ago. After the last Crusaders left, Akko and its environs were neglected, and much of their lands lay fallow.

The team’s finding in Akko is not the only evidence of ancient human impact on the ecosystem. The evidence left behind of habitation patterns causing profound depletion of their environment demand that we rethink our notions of ancient civilizations, their growth – and their demise.

By Ran Shapira published in Harretz.com on April 23, 2014

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