Pournelle extracting sediment samples from an archaic channel of the Euphrates River in southern Iraq. (Credit: Nagham Darweesh)
ScienceDaily (Oct. 4, 2012) — A scientist at the University of South Carolina is continuing to build the case that natural wetlands, rather than irrigated fields, are the fertile ground from which cities initially emerged in Mesopotamia. And her conclusions about the importance of wetlands to a sustainable urban environment -- or, in fact, any environment -- have particular resonance in southern Iraq. That area is both the site of her studies and the region where Saddam Hussein forcibly drained marshes to drive out the local populace after the first Gulf war.
Jennifer Pournelle, an archaeologist and anthropologist in USC's School of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, thinks the conventional wisdom about irrigation and city-building is backward.
"In most people's heads -- archaeologists, ecologists, environmental scientists -- there's the idea that cities happen because somebody invented and managed irrigation," Pournelle said. "My argument is, 'No -- irrigation is what happened because you had cities, but the marshlands were moving away from them.'
"That's what marshes do. Deltas build up, river mouths migrate, and the marshes go with them. The city's stuck where it is, so it has to start irrigating to raise crop production and replace all of the marshland resources that have moved too far away."