Archaeologists have documented the world’s oldest evidence of caring for food animals, dating to approximately 12,500 years ago, at a site called Abu Hureyra in Syria, using remains of ancient animal feces. The research was published this week in PLOS ONE.
For millions of years, humans obtained food solely by hunting and gathering wild plants and animals, until just over 10,000 years ago, when they began to experiment with food production. The animal domestication process would have included a variety of management strategies that changed in intensity over time. It is likely that people began keeping some wild animals on the site, possibly for short periods of time to fill in gaps in the hunting cycle. Later, as the level of supervision intensified, people finally took control of the reproductive cycles of large herds that needed year-round care. Observing the beginnings of this important transition using archaeological evidence can be tricky.
Archaeologists have traditionally examined changes in animal bone shapes that vary between wild and domesticated animal populations. While this approach provides an enormous amount of information, changes in bone shape occur long after the care and domestication process has begun, making it difficult to follow up on early animal handling experiments.
There is another method that allows archaeologists to look further back in time using microscopic calcium-based balls that form in the intestines of many herbivores called dung spherulites. When live animals are kept on the site, they create manure accumulations. Observations of dung spherulites allow archaeologists to examine the period before full domestication occurred, to determine when people began bringing live animals to sites and caring for them. This type of care can range from casual to intensive.
Until recently, it has been difficult to find a method that would allow archaeologists to examine early experiments with animal care before domestication and full-blown animal herding, so it’s really exciting to see that the remains of animal dung they can help us trace the different ways people interacted with animals early on. We were surprised when we realized that hunter-gatherers were bringing live animals to Abu Hureyra between 12,800 and 12,300 years ago and keeping them outside their hut. This is nearly 2,000 years earlier than we’ve seen elsewhere, though it’s in line with what we might expect from the Euphrates Valley.
Abu Hureyra, first excavated in the 1970s by a team led by Rochester Institute of Technology Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Andrew Moore, remains an important site in helping to understand where and when it first developed. the Agriculture. The site is now submerged under Lake Assad following the closure of a dam, near the present-day city of Raqqa in northern Syria within an area known as the Fertile Crescent.
Different layers of dwellings in Abu Hureyra have been built on top of each other for more than 5,550 years. The oldest layers include a small hunter-gatherer settlement that was first settled at the end of the Paleolithic or Stone Age, dating from 13,300 to 11,400 years ago, during a period of time known as the Epipaleolithic. Later, farming and ranching communities built a series of villages on top of the early settlement during the Neolithic period (10,600–7,800 years ago). Together, the different layers of occupation, along with studies of ancient seeds, animal bones, architecture, and tools, provide detailed information about the transition from hunting and gathering to farming.
Durham University researcher and co-author Peter Rowley-Conwy studied animal bones from Abu Hureyra. Animal bone remains show that during the Epipaleolithic period, hunter-gatherers began to rely more and more on sheep to supplement a diet based primarily on hunting gazelle, although they also took small game such as birds, hares, and foxes.
Eventually, in the Neolithic period, herding sheep and goats became more important than hunting animals, and huts were replaced by adobe houses. These trends, combined with observations of dung accumulations immediately outside a hut at Abu Hureyra dating to between 12,800 and 12,300 years ago, indicate that hunter-gatherers brought a small number of live animals, most likely sheep, to the site and kept them there. .
This find is the earliest evidence of the co-presence of people and animals that would later be domesticated, marking the beginning stages of a revolutionary transition from hunting and gathering to full-fledged farming and herding.
Archaeologists have to be very creative to discover how people lived in the past. When hunter-gatherers began experimenting, bringing live animals to the site, even for a short period of time, they had no idea of the massive social changes they were setting in motion. The way we live today is largely based on this shift from reliance on hunting and gathering wild plants and animals to reliance on growing and grazing for our food.
Once agriculture was established, it quickly became the main strategy for obtaining food and laid the foundations for the development of large towns, the development of specialized trades and, later, the emergence of writing, cities and enormous social inequalities. .
The change was truly revolutionary and forever changed the way we interact with the natural world and with each other. We would not be living the lives we do today if this change had not occurred.
Co-author Moore says this research represents a major advance in our understanding of the critical early stages of animal husbandry that lead to complete domestication.
The samples excavated at Abu Hureyra during the 1970s are still very informative. For this study, dust from “float samples” currently held at the Institute of Archeology at University College London was examined. The float samples were initially collected to examine organic materials such as seeds and wood, but this study shows that they contain a variety of additional clues about the past, including dung spherulites. We were able to study the samples at the UConn Archaeobotany Laboratory with the help of co-author Amy Oechsner, a graduate student at the University of Tübingen, who was visiting UConn as part of the graduate student exchange between Universität Tübingen and the University of Connecticut (TUConn). funded by the Office of the Chancellor and the UConn Office of Global Affairs.
Fecal markers have not been used by many researchers to track the presence of animals in hunter-gatherer sites, so future work examining paleofeces is likely to continue to provide new insights into this important transition in our collective human past.