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Left; The Statue of Idrimi found at Tell. Right; Map of Tell Atchana with excavation squares indicated (data courtesy of Alalakh Excavations Archive.) 	Source: Left; British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR Right; PLOS ONE

Was The First International Age For A Privileged Few?

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The Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, which included such civilizations as Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, has been viewed as the “first international age,” and it has been assumed there were extensive networks of travel, trade and relations flowing between these ancient civilizations. But just how true was this for the average person? A  new PLOS ONE study of aDNA  (ancient DNA) focused on an ancient site in present-day Turkey concludes that “international” mobility was far more restricted than previously believed.

The First International Age? DNA Says Not So Much!

The Middle and  Late Bronze Age  (2000-1200 BC) Amik Valley, located in Hatay province in  southern Turkey , is often referenced as a center in the first international age, particularly from 1600 to 1200 BC.

The people that settled in this valley were in contact with cultures across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, including the entire Near East (western Asia, Turkey and  northeast Africa ). 

This international travel and trade hypothesis was the subject of a fascinating open-access study published in the latest edition of  PLOS ONE , where the researchers have relied heavily on genetic and isotope data to reconstruct a dataset of over 200 individuals unearthed in the Amik Valley.

An aerial photo of Tell Atchana, where the recent study on the so-called “first international age” revealed that mobility was much less common that previously thought. (Murat Akar / Tell Atchana, Alalakh Excavations)

An aerial photo of Tell Atchana, where the recent study on the so-called “first international age” revealed that mobility was much less common that previously thought. (Murat Akar /  Tell Atchana, Alalakh Excavations )

Examining the Site at Alalakh With Modern Scientific Methods

The study focused on Alalakh (modern-day southern Turkey, near the Syrian border) also known as  Tell Atchana . The researchers explored the theme of mobility in a kingdom known as Mukish (part of the Yamhad dynasty), which spanned the Amik Valley and neighboring areas in the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC).

This period is associated with the renowned ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia, Egypt and  Anatolia, which all had vassal states. Like all ancient kingdoms, the Mukish fought wars and engaged extensively in trade, which would have created extensive socio-economic trade and travel networks.

The research team (archaeologists,  geneticists, and isotope researchers) examined most of the Late Bronze Age graves at Alalakh. The team concluded that nearly everyone buried there were from the very same region, including their ancestors, suggesting an absence of social mobility in comparison to their level of economic development. 

“This picture of an overwhelmingly local ancestry was consistent with the evidence of local upbringing in most of the individuals indicated by the isotopic data, where only five were found to be non-local. High levels of contact, trade, and exchange of ideas and goods in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, therefore, seem not to have translated into high levels of individual mobility detectable at Tell Atchana,” the researchers wrote.

So, in an age hailed as the first international age in the region, why was such little  evidence of mobility  found?

Map of Tell Atchana with excavation squares indicated (data courtesy of Alalakh Excavations Archive.) (PLOS ONE)

Map of Tell Atchana with excavation squares indicated (data courtesy of Alalakh Excavations Archive.) ( PLOS ONE )

A Surprising Lack of Mobility Was More Normal Than Believed

This lack of mobility evidence surprised the researchers because this period has long been associated with high levels of inter-regional connectivity in “areas such as trade, diplomacy, and artistic expression, documented by both the material and textual records.” The study of this period’s written sources has indicated a high level of social mobility on a wide scale, including mobile traders, artisans, and royal representatives. 

However, there is a limitation to the writing of “history from above.” For in this period, royal histories were recorded by commissioned court historians, official record keepers and the like. The history and reality of ordinary people in most historical periods was often absent to a surprising degree. 

The authors of the study seem to concur when they write, “there have been limited studies of individuals’ life histories and broader demographic trends during this time period which are based in bioarchaeology, particularly in the Levant…”

Fortunately, modern technology, particularly aDNA ( ancient DNA ) analysis, along with genome sequencing and isotope analyses helps to reconstruct the complex social fabric in ancient times. These scientific forms of research are important in providing a wider perspective on ancient societies and their degree of mobility.

The Late Bronze Age dead at Alalakh were usually buried in simple pit graves and frequently with ceramic vessels close to their heads. (Murat Akar / Tell Atchana, Alalakh Excavations)

The Late Bronze Age dead at Alalakh were usually buried in simple pit graves and frequently with ceramic vessels close to their heads. (Murat Akar /  Tell Atchana, Alalakh Excavations )

75% of the DNA Was Local And The Rest From Adjacent Locales

Studying the graves of ordinary people and then using aDNA analysis, particularly tooth enamel data, to reconstruct migration history revealed that, “If an individual identified as a first-generation immigrant by isotopic analysis looks genetically very much like the other individuals at the site, it is likely that we are dealing with either regional/short distance migration or long-distance backwards migration.”

While 75% of the sampled individuals were from Alalakh, the remaining percentage of non-locals had ancestral ties to Alalakh, and neighboring areas based on their DNA. According to co-author Stefanie Eisenmann from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man, only two possible explanations exist, the individuals studied were, “either people who immigrated to Alalakh from a short distance, or they were returnees. That means people whose parents or grandparents originally came from Alalakh but moved away from here. The children then came back to Alalakh later,” she explained.

The team was unable to detect completely foreign individuals suggesting that “the majority of sampled individuals were locals who likely lived, died, and were buried in close proximity to the place where they were born.”

This study represents a very small and localized sample. However, Murat Akar, head of the excavations, perfectly summarizes this by explaining the possible conclusions of the DNA results. Alalakh may have just happened to have significantly fewer migrants than what the textual sources indicated. Or these foreign migrant individuals were buried well-outside Alalakh, suggesting some kind of hierarchy in grave burials: locals closer to the town center and vice-versa. The third suggestion is that graves and bodies of foreigners for some reason did not stand the ravages of time.

Another explanation is that international travel was very much restricted to specific classes (traders, artisans and royal officials) in a society, and that the individuals in locally sampled group were not from these classes. Further research will hopefully reveal more.

Top image: Left; The Statue of Idrimi found at Tell. Right; Map of Tell Atchana with excavation squares indicated (data courtesy of Alalakh Excavations Archive.)           Source: Left; British Museum,  CC BY-SA 2.0 FR  Right; PLOS ONE

By Rudra Bhushan

References

Ingman, T., Eisenmann, S.,  et al Human mobility at Tell Atchana (Alalakh), Hatay, Turkey during the 2nd millennium BC: Integration of isotopic and genomic evidence.  PLOS ONE. Available at:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0241883.

MPI SHH. 2021.  Where are the migrants of the first international age?  Available at:  https://www.shh.mpg.de/2014609/alalakh-mobility.

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