Animal remains in Syria: reference to livestock shakes historical theory

Humans have been keeping livestock for around 13,000 years.

Animal remains in Syria: reference to livestock shakes historical theory

Humans have been keeping livestock for around 13,000 years. At least that is the result of researchers who analyzed dung residues from a place in what is now Syria. If the findings are confirmed, then human history must be rewritten in this regard.

So far, anthropologists have assumed that in the course of history, mankind first developed agriculture and only later ran livestock. An international research team is now raising doubts about this. It is assumed that the inhabitants of the settlement of Abu Hureyra in modern-day Syria kept animals almost 13,000 years ago - albeit only temporarily and on a small scale. This is the earliest indication of animal husbandry to date, writes the team led by Alexia Smith from the University of Connecticut after analyzing dung residues in the specialist journal "PLOS One".

Abu Hureyra was located in what is now northern Syria on the banks of the Euphrates. The settlement had to be quickly excavated in the early 1970s before being flooded by the Assad Reservoir in 1974. The place was inhabited from about 13,300 years ago - in the following millennia, the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal husbandry took place in the region, which belongs to the so-called Fertile Crescent.

To reconstruct the history of the site, the team - including Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who led the emergency excavation in 1972/1973 - focused on a new technique: the analysis of so-called fecal spherulites. These globules of crystallized calcium carbonate are 5 to 20 microns in diameter and form in the intestines of herbivores such as sheep, goats and gazelles.

Such spherulites are contained in samples from all settlement phases of the site - but in different concentrations. In the second phase, which began about 12,800 years ago, they appear much more frequently than before. From this the researchers conclude that at that time animals, probably wild sheep, were temporarily and initially in small numbers kept directly in front of the residential buildings as stocks. This supplemented the hunt for gazelles, which was still the main source of animal food at the time.

This would then be the earliest beginnings of livestock farming - not yet with domesticated, but with wild animals. Researchers also place the beginnings of agriculture in the Near East in that epoch.

In Abu Hureyra, the second settlement phase, which lasts from 12,800 to 12,300 years ago, is accompanied by striking innovations: dark-colored spherulites indicate that the dung of the animals was used as fuel in addition to wood. Because for the discoloration, the beads must have been exposed to a temperature of 500 to 700 degrees. This would be by far the earliest evidence of such use of dung.

In addition, in this phase, the rounded dwelling pits of the residents are replaced by straight hut constructions. Even later, roughly 10,000 years ago, animal husbandry became more common and dung was also used in architecture, mainly as plaster for floors.

About 9000 years ago, according to the analysis of bone remains, sheep and goats, which are now increasingly kept, replaced gazelles as the main source of animal food. At the same time, the concentration of dung spherulites in the village falls drastically: the team interprets this as an indication that the herds were now permanently present and so large that they were no longer kept in the immediate vicinity of the residential buildings.

"The observations made here raise the question of whether changes in animal behavior preceded agriculture or whether both arose simultaneously," the team writes. In order to clarify this, the method of spherulite analysis can now also be used in other settlements from that time. In the future, it might even be possible to identify the species from which the tiny globules came.

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