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Recent fieldwork and archival sedimentary materials from southern Iraq have revealed new insights into the environment that shaped southern Mesopotamia from the pre-Ubaid (early Holocene) until the early Islamic period. These data have been combined with northern Iraqi speleothem, or stalagmite, data that have revealed relevant palaeoclimate information. The new results are investigated in light of textual sources and satellite remote sensing work. It is evident that areas south of Baghdad, and to the region of Uruk, were already potentially habitable between the eleventh and early eighth millennia B.C., suggesting there were settlements in southern Iraq prior to the Ubaid. Date palms, the earliest recorded for Iraq, are evident before 10,000 B.C., and oak trees are evident south of Baghdad in the early Holocene but disappeared after the mid-sixth millennium B.C. New climate results suggest increased aridity after the end of the fourth millennium B.C. For the third millennium B.C. to first millennium A.D., a negative relationship between grain and date palm cultivation in Nippur is evident, suggesting shifting cultivation emphasising one of these crops at any given time in parts of the city. The Shatt en-Nil was also likely used as a channel for most of Nippur's historical occupation from the third millennium B.C. to the first millennium A.D. In the early to mid-first millennium A.D., around the time of the Sasanian period, a major increase in irrigation is evident in plant remains, likely reflecting large-scale irrigation expansion in the Nippur region. The first millennium B.C. to first millennium A.D. reflects a relatively dry period with periodic increased rainfall. Sedimentary results suggest the Nahrawan, prior to it becoming a well-known canal, formed an ancient branch of the Tigris, while the region just south of Baghdad, around Dalmaj, was near or part of an ancient confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Lack of archaeological and comparative ethnographic data has limited our ability to interpret textual information that refers to ancient Mesopotamian irrigation works. This paper presents ethnographic data from modern Iraq regarding the construction, use and maintenance of a traditional irrigation system. Because traditional construction methods make use of organic materials similar to those available in the past, the data presented in this paper are considered to provide a set of analogies that can assist the interpretation of textual evidence and hence lead to a better understanding of irrigation practices in ancient Mesopotamia.
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