Hunter-gatherers in the Euphrates Valley took up sheep farming over 12,000 years ago

(ORDO NEWS) — Analysis of ancient manure showed that people began to care for animals even before they became farmers. This is contrary to pre-existing scientific ideas about the transition to agriculture.

The journal PLOS One published the work of a group of researchers led by Alexia Smith (Alexia Smith) from the University of Connecticut (USA).

Scientists analyzed animal excrement collected in Abu Hureyra (Syria) and came to unexpected conclusions.

Abu Hureyra is a Mesolithic (Epipaleolithic) and early Neolithic archaeological site in northern Mesopotamia. It is located on a mountain plateau near the south bank of the Euphrates.

The age of the earliest finds made there is more than 13 thousand years. Most likely, carriers of the Natufian culture originally lived there.

Hunter gatherers in the Euphrates Valley took up sheep farming over 12 000 years ago 2
A – map of Syria showing the location of Abu Hureyra, B – photograph of archaeological layers., C – plan of excavations in Abu Hureyra, D – reconstruction of pit dwellings

The settlement at Abu Hureyra was finally abandoned only after 5000 BC. That is, people lived in this place for thousands of years – and just at the time when they switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture and cattle breeding.

Usually, scientists judge whether cattle were domesticated in a particular area or not, by the bones. In domesticated animals, they are more gracile, lighter than in their wild relatives. But Alexia Smith and her colleagues went the other way.

They analyzed soil samples collected at Abu Hureyra during excavations in the 1970s. In them, scientists found an accumulation of spherulites – microscopic balls based on calcium carbonate, which are formed in the intestines of many herbivores and enter their feces.

They can be found in the accumulations of manure present where animals were once kept.

The specimens were found near an ancient adobe hut, allowing researchers to date the dung deposits.

Hunter gatherers in the Euphrates Valley took up sheep farming over 12 000 years ago 3
Spherulites based on calcium carbonate are formed in the intestines of many herbivores

Their analysis shows that people who lived in Abu Hureyra about 12,800-12,300 years ago (during the Epipaleolithic era) kept animals, possibly sheep, right next to their dwellings, and sheep dung served them as fuel.

Later, as evidenced by other archaeological sites, the Neolithic inhabitants of the site continued to use dung as a fuel, as well as a component for covering the floor.

The subsequent drop in the number of spherulites at this location may indicate that animals are grazing away from human dwellings. Such a scheme is typical of the large-scale cattle breeding familiar to us.

This is a rather unexpected result. It is widely believed in the scientific community that people first took up agriculture and only then cattle breeding.

But the conclusions of the authors of the work suggest the opposite, at least for this region: people began to bring live animals to their homes and keep them there for some time, take care of them – and before they switched to cultivating the fields.

The fact that the people of Abu Hureyra had not yet switched to agriculture at that time is evidenced by the results of the excavations: there are no traces of cultivated plants, no tools associated with their cultivation.

The paper says: “Until recently, it was difficult to find a method that would allow archaeologists to study the earliest experiments in animal care before the full domestication of animals and pastoralism.

So it’s very interesting to see that dung residues can help us trace the different ways humans interact with animals at an early stage. We were surprised when we realized that hunter-gatherers brought live animals to Abu Hureyra between 12,800 and 12,300 years ago and kept them outside their hut.

This is almost 2,000 years earlier than what we see elsewhere, although it is in line with what we might expect for the Euphrates valley.”

The researchers plan to continue analyzing the materials from Abu Hureyra and add that a similar method is applicable to the study of other Mesolithic sites, especially in Southeast Asia. This could give a very interesting result.

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