From hunting to herding in the Early Neolithic settlement of Aşıklı Höyük

Switch from hunting to herding recorded in ancient pee

Urine salts reveal timing and scale of neolithic revolution at Turkish site

Study authors Jay Quade (left) and Jordan Abell (right) looking for optimal samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding. Credit: Güneş Duru

The transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding is considered a crucial turning point in the history of humanity. Scholars think the intensive food production that came along with the Neolithic Revolution, starting around 10,000 B.C., allowed cities to grow, led to technological innovation and, eventually, enabled life as we know it today.

It has been difficult to work out the details of how and when this took place. But a new study published in Science Advances begins to resolve the scale and pace of change during the first phases of animal domestication at an ancient site in Turkey. To reconstruct this history, the authors turned to an unusual source: urine salts left behind by humans and animals.

Whereas dung is commonly used in all sorts of studies, “this is the first time, to our knowledge, that people have picked up on salts in archaeological materials, and used them in a way to look at the development of animal management,” says lead author Jordan Abell, a graduate student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The team used the urine salts to calculate the density of humans and animals at the site over time, estimating that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. The results suggest that domestication may have been more rapid than previously expected. They also support the idea that the Neolithic Revolution didn’t have just one birthplace in the Fertile Crescent of the Mideast, but rather occurred across several locations simultaneously.

Connecting the Dots

At the ancient settlement of Aşıklı Höyük in central Turkey, archaeological evidence suggests that humans began domesticating sheep and goats around 8450 BC. These practices evolved over the next 1,000 years, until the society became heavily dependent on the beasts for food and other materials.

Students working on the western Section of Aşıklı Höyük, where the evidence was found. Credit: Güneş Duru

As it happened, co-authors Susan Mentzer from the University of Tübingen and Jay Quade from the University of Arizona, where Abell worked on this project as an undergraduate, had previously documented some unusually high levels of salts around Aşıklı Höyük, and were perplexed by what they meant. Using this data and others, the new study supports the idea that the salts likely came from the urine of humans, sheep and goats. The study uses the abundance of the salts over time to track the growth of the community and its animals over a period of 1,000 years.

A Rapid Transition

Working with Turkish archaeologists, including Istanbul University’s Mihriban Özbaşaran, who heads the Aşıklı Höyük dig, the team collected 113 samples from all across the site — from trash piles to bricks and hearths, and from different time periods — to look at patterns in the sodium, nitrate and chlorine salt levels.

They found that, overall, the urine salts at Aşıklı Höyük increased in abundance over time. The natural layers before the settlement was built contained very low levels of salts. The oldest layers with evidence of human habitation, spanning 10,400 to 10,000 years ago, saw slight increases but remained relatively low in the urine salts. Then the salts spike during a period from 10,000 to 9,700 years ago; the amount of salts in this layer is about 1,000 times higher than in the preceding ones, indicating a rapid increase in the number of occupants (both human and animal). After that, the concentrations decrease slightly.

Abell says these trends line up with previous hypotheses based on other evidence from the site — that the settlement transitioned first from mostly hunting sheep and goats to corralling just a few, then changed to larger-scale management, and then finally shifted to keeping animals in corrals on the periphery of the site as their numbers grew. And although the timing is close to what the study authors expected, the sharp change around 10,000 years ago “may be new evidence for a more rapid transition” toward domestication, says Abell.

Using the salt concentrations, the team estimated the number and density of people plus sheep and goats at Aşıklı Höyük, after accounting for other factors that might have influenced the salt levels. They calculated that around 10,000 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. By comparison, modern-day semi-intensive feedlots have densities of about one sheep for every 5 square meters.

Although it is not currently possible to distinguish between human and livestock urine salts, the urine salt analysis method can still provide a helpful estimate of sheep and goat abundance. Over the 1,000 year period, the team calculated that an average of 1,790 people and animals lived and peed on the settlement every day. In each time period, the estimated inhabitants were much higher than the number of people that archaeologists think the settlement’s buildings would have housed. This indicates that the urine salt concentrations can indeed reflect the relative amounts of domesticated animals over time.

Aşıklı Höyük Turkey Neolithic Revolution
View from the rooftops of reconstructed Aşıklı Höyük houses from the 8th and 9th century BC. Credit: Güneş Duru

The researchers plan to further refine their methods and calculations in the future, and hope to find a way to differentiate between human and animal urine salts. They think the methodology could be applied in other arid areas, and could be especially helpful at sites where other physical evidence, such as bones, is lacking.

A Broader Revolution

The study’s results also help shed light on the geographic spread of the Neolithic Revolution. It was once thought that farming and herding originated in the Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, then spread outward from there. But mounting evidence, including today’s study, indicates that domestication and the transition to Neolithic lifestyles took place concurrently over a broad and diffuse swath of the region.

Anthropologist and co-author Mary Stiner from the University of Arizona said that the new method could help to clarify the larger picture of humanity’s relationship to animals during this transitional period. “We might find similar trends in other archaeological sites of the period in the Middle East,” she said, “but it is also possible that only a handful of long-lasting communities were forums for the evolving human-caprine relationships in any given region of the Middle East.”

Güneş Duru and Melis Uzdurum from Istanbul University were also authors on the paper.

 

Press release from the Earth Institute at the Columbia University, by Sarah Fecht

 

Urine salts provide evidence of Early Neolithic animal management

Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey

A close examination of midden soil layers at the early Neolithic site of Aşıklı Höyük in Turkey reveals that they are highly enriched in sodium, chlorine, and nitrate salts commonly found in human and goat and sheep urine, offering a distinct signal for following the management of those animals through the history of the site. The findings, along with an enriched nitrogen signal in the soil, suggest a new way for archaeologists to study the evolution of animal management at this critical point in human history, at similarly dry, thickly stratified sites that may not contain other domestication evidence such as animal bones or dung, or the presence of corrals or other animal enclosures. Jordan Abell and colleagues used several techniques to identify these soluble urine salts and to distinguish them from natural geological salt deposition at Aşıklı Höyük. The researchers found a 5-10 times increase in these salts between about 10,400 BP to 10,000 BP, and a 10-1000 times increase between 10,400 and 9,700 BP, demonstrating increasing reliance upon and eventual domestication of sheep and goats over this time. Based on these salt concentrations, Abell et al. estimate that about 1,790 humans and animals lived and urinated on the site per day for roughly 1,000 years of occupation. High soluble nitrogen levels in the trash heaps of the site are similar to those seen in modern feedlots, the researchers note.

Press release from the American Association for the Advancement of Science


The exhibition ‘Tutankhamun, treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ in Paris

TUTANKHAMUN’S PRICELESS TREASURES WILL RETURN TO PARIS FOR THE FIRST TIME
IN A GENERATION WITH ‘TUTANKHAMUN, TREASURES OF THE GOLDEN PHARAOH’

23 March to 15 September 2019 - Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, France

Paris, 29 November 2018 - Celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of his tomb, the new Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition has opened in Paris on 23 March 2019. More than 50 years after his treasures attracted more than 1.2 million visitors to the ‘exhibition of the century’ in Paris in 1967, this is a unique opportunity to rediscover the legend, before the artefacts are permanently housed in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Presented by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and IMG at the Grande Halle de la Villette, in collaboration with the Louvre in an advisory role, the exhibition’s curated collection features more than 150 original artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb including a number of the young sovereign’s personal objects that accompanied him in both life and death: gold jewellery, sculptures and ceremonial objects. FedEx, the tour’s official logistics provider, will utilise its global network to transport the artefacts, including more than 50 items that will be visible for the first time outside of Egypt.

While the Pharaohs that succeeded Tutankhamun almost managed to erase him from the history books, he became headline news around the world when his tomb was found untouched in 1922 by the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter. Had he not made this discovery, which brought fame to two men who lived 3,400 years apart, the 18th dynasty Pharaoh could have been forgotten completely.

Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh Grande Halle de la Villette Paris exhibition
Wooden Ceremonial Shield with King as
Sphinx Trampling on Nubian Enemies
GEM 341
18th dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun,
1336 - 1326 B.C.
Wood, Stucco, Gold Leaf, Ebony Inlaid
Luxor, Valley of the Kings, KV62, Annex. © Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy

To celebrate the 100th year anniversary of discovering the tomb of the Boy King Tutankhamun, Egypt is sending 150 masterpieces to tour all over the world. We invite people to come and see them, before they return to Egypt,” said Dr. Mostafa Waziry, Secretary General of the Ministry of State for Antiquities, Egypt.

By reviving the legend of the Pharaoh covered with gold in a very potent way, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s unplundered tomb, almost one hundred years ago, revived our fascination with Egypt and its buried treasure. It is a pleasure to collaborate in bringing the legend of Tutankhamun and these extremely rare objects from the Cairo Museum for this historic and final return to Paris, and inspiring wonder in a new generation,” said Vincent Rondot, Director of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, the Louvre.

Gilded Wooden Bed
GEM 14276
18th dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun,
1336 - 1326 B.C.
Wood, stucco, gold foil
Length: 180,5 cm
Width: 79,5 cm
Maximum height: 71 cm
Luxor, Valley of the Kings, KV62, Annex. © Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy

For ancient Egyptians, death was also considered to be a new birth. However, this life after death was only possible if the body was preserved and underwent the right rituals. To ensure this post mortem rebirth and survival in the afterlife, the ancient Egyptians created a whole host of rituals, objects, images and texts that can be found inside and on the walls of the tomb. Visitors to the exhibition will follow Tutankhamun’s journey into everlasting life, discovering along the way what each funerary object was used for on this perilous journey, as well as the story of one of the key discoveries in modern archeology. As they explore the exhibition, visitors will be perpetuating the memory of the Pharaoh and his immortality.

The god Amun protecting Tutankhamun
Diorite, 1336-1326 BC
Department of Egyptian Antiquities,
Musée du Louvre
© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN – Grand Palais /
Christian Descamps

In addition to accompanying the project, the Louvre Department of Egyptian Antiquities will lend one of its own masterpieces: the statue of the god Amun protecting Tutankhamun, and is setting up a special “Valley of the Kings” itinerary in its permanent collection.

The 100th anniversary of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history inspired us to create an exhibition like none before. As millions of people around the world get the opportunity to see these ancient objects in an immersive and personal context, we know Tutankhamun’s place in people’s imaginations will be secure for generations to come,” said John Norman, Managing Director, Exhibitions, IMG.

Colossal Quartzite Statue of Tutankhamun,
Usurped by Ay and Horemheb
GEM 2223
18th dynasty, reign of Tutankhamun,
1336 - 1326 B.C.
Quartzite
Luxor, Medinet Habu, Temple of Ay and Horemheb. © Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy

At the conclusion of the exhibition’s 10-city world tour, the items will go on permanent display at the Grand Egyptian Museum being constructed in Cairo. The money raised from this exhibition will provide financial support to the Grand Egyptian Museum and to archaeological sites in Egypt.

The Grand Egyptian Museum will be situated adjacent to the Giza Plateau within 2.5 kilometres of the Giza pyramids. Once completed it will be a world-leading scientific, historical and archaeological study center that will cover approximately 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history and house more than 100,000 artefacts. This stunning location will serve as a backdrop to a display of priceless artefacts, including the final resting place of the Tutankhamun collection. The Giza Plateau is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Aside from the pyramids, it is home to the Giza Necropolis and the Great Sphinx.