Hunter-gatherers kept animals for food before growing crops

Ancient dung suggests that 12,000 years ago a population of hunter-gatherers in what is now Syria kept animals like sheep or gazelles around – probably for food

Human beings

14 September 2022

Archaeological sediment from Abu Hureyra in Syria becomes

Dung spherulites were found in samples of archaeological sediment from Abu Hureyra in Syria

Andrew Moore (CC-BY 4.0)

Some hunter-gatherers probably kept sheep, or possibly gazelles, outside their huts before they even started growing crops, according to traces of ancient animal dung.

Alexia Smith of the University of Connecticut and her colleagues have found spherulites—small spheres of calcium found primarily in the feces of grass-eating ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and antelope—outside groups of huts belonging to people who lived in what is now Syria more than 12,000 years ago.

They also found charred spherulites in fireplaces. This suggests that humans lived with herbivores, such as sheep, in this region about 2,000 years earlier than previously thought and used dung as a fuel source, says Smith.

“They’re still hunters and gatherers, and they’re still dependent on hunted gazelle, but now they’re starting to bring live animals to the site and keep them as long as they need them,” says Smith. “And this result is a bit surprising, because it predates agriculture, and predates what we see in adjacent regions.”

Ruminants release significant amounts of spherulites in their feces, while omnivores, including humans, release very small amounts, and carnivores and horses—which are herbivores but not ruminants—release even fewer, Smith says.

Smith was originally curious about when ancient populations first started burning animal dung as fuel, which is done because it can maintain a very high heat. So she began looking for spherulites — which are about 5 to 20 micrometers in diameter — in the dust of a human settlement at Abu Hureyra — in present-day Syria near the Euphrates River — that was inhabited between 7,800 and 13,300 years ago.

In dust from as far back as 12,300 to 12,800 years ago, she found dark spherulites that indicated that dung had been burned at high temperatures, probably as a heat source, she says. But to her surprise, she also found undarkened spherulites around the outside of huts, suggesting that these people tended sheep, goats, cows or gazelles just outside their front doors. The earliest evidence we have for crop use in the region dates back to around 11,000 years ago.

“Very quickly I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, we have an opportunity here to actually assess the antiquity of living animals at the site,'” she says.

By the late Neolithic period, around 8,000 years ago, however, spherulites began to disappear from the huts, says Smith. It may be because the herds had become so large that people tended them in pastures further away from the settlements. “It seems like the opposite of what you’d expect,” she says. “But then it makes sense, because if you have a large number of animals, it’s not sustainable to keep them on site.”

However, this does not mean that the animals were domesticated, adds Smith. It also does not show which ruminants lived outside the cabins. What is more likely is that humans bound wild animals and fed them to keep them alive as a later source of meat. “At the end of the day, these animals were dinner,” she says.

Journal reference: PLoS OneDOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0272947

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