Cremation in the Middle East dates as far back as 7,000 B.C.

The gender of the human remains found inside a cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel remains unknown. What is known is that the individual was a young adult injured by a flint projectile several months prior to their death in spring some 9,000 years ago. Preserved due to it being buried, the pit represents the oldest proof of direct (1) cremation in the Middle East.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun
Flint point thrust inside a burnt shoulder blade
© mission Beisamoun

An international team lead by CNRS archaeo-anthropologist Fanny Bocquentin (2)with aid from PhD candidate Marie Anton and several experts in animal, plant, and mineral remains, discovered and studied the bones found inside the pyre. An analysis of the clay used to coat the inside of the pit showed the 355 bone fragments, some of which were burnt, were exposed to temperatures reaching 700°C. The position of the bones and the preserved joints seem to indicate the body was placed seated onto the pyre and was not moved during or after cremation.

Excavations of the pyre pit.
© mission Beisamoun

Whether used as fuel, as ornamentation, or as a scent, siliceous traces indicated the presence of flowering plants, which made it possible to identify the season the person died. In addition to the exceptional pyre pit, the cremated remains of five other adults were discovered at the site. They dated back to the same period as burials whose traces were discovered among the ruins of abandoned dwellings.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun Israel
Archaeological site at Beisamoun, Israel. © mission Beisamoun

The use of cremation indicates an evolution of the relationship to death in the region. The veneration of ancestors and lengthy funerary practices seem to have given way to shorter rituals. This could be evidence of a transition phase because, some two to three centuries later, the dead were no longer buried inside or near villages and their traces are much more difficult to find.

The study is based on joint archaeological digs completed between 2007-2016 by the CNRS, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A section of the Beisamoun site (Israel) where the pyre pit is visible.
© mission Beisamoun
Bibliography

Emergence of corpse cremation during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: A multidisciplinary study of a pyre-pit burial, Fanny Bocquentin, Marie Anton, Francesco Berna, Arlene Rosen, Hamoudi Khalaily, Harris Greenberg, Thomas C. Hart, Omri Lernau, Liora Kolska Horwitz. PLOS ONE, 12 August 2020. DOI : 10.1371/journal.pone.0235386

Notes

(1) The body was cremated directly, as opposed to other practices where dried exhumed bones were burnt.

(2) Member of the Prehistoric ethnology team at the Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité laboratory (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre/French Ministry of Culture). This study also involved a PhD candidate from the Eco-anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Museum national d’Histoire naturelle) with support from the Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem (CNRS/French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs/Aix-Marseille Université).

Press release from CNRS on the cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel, Middle East.


Amud 9 neandertal

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

Amud 9 is shown to be a Neandertal woman weighing 60 kg who lived in the Late Pleistocene

The CENIEH researcher Adrián Pablos co-leads a paper on the morphology of a foot found at Amud Cave in Israel, establishing that this fossil known as Amud 9 can be taxonomically attributed as Neandertal, and obtaining this individual's sex, weight and height.
Amud 9 neandertal
Fósiles de Amud 9. Credits: Osborjn M. Pearson y Adrián Pablos

Adrián Pablos, a scientist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), co-leads a paper published in PaleoAnthropology, the official journal of the PaleoAnthropology Society, looking at the morphology and anatomy of a partial foot recovered over 25 years ago at Amud Cave (Israel), which confirms that the individual Amud 9 was a Neandertal woman from the Late Pleistocene, with a stature of some 160-166 cm and weight of 60 kg.

Over the course of several excavations conducted in the twentieth century at Amud Cave, remains of at least 15 Neandertals were found. A systematic and detailed study of one of these individuals, Amud 9, has found that the fossil possesses the traits usually associated with Neanderthals in the different elements of the foot, tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges, which differ from those of modern humans, both fossil and recent.

“Most of these traits are related to the typical, exceptional robustness of the postcranial skeleton, that is, from the neck down, observed in the majority of Neandertals”, explains Pablos.

Sex, weight and height

Sex, weight and height estimates in fossil populations are normally based on the dimensions of the large leg bones. However, in the case of Amud 9, only a fragment of tibia, the talus or ankle bone, one metatarsal or instep bone, and several phalanges are conserved.

As no long leg bones have been found, the researchers applied different mathematical estimates based upon the foot bones, thus obtaining an approximation to important paleobiological parameters.

“Knowing parameters such as the body size and sex of this individual helps us learn a bit more about what the Neandertals were like”, he says.

The participants in this paper, entitled A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud Cave, Israel, are researchers from Spain (the CENIEH), the United States (University of New Mexico and Arizona State University), and Israel (Tel Aviv University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Full bibliographic information

Pearson, O.M., Pablos, A., Rak, Y., Hovers, E., 2020. A partial Neandertal foot from the Late Middle Paleolithic of Amud cave, Israel. PaleoAnthropology 2020, 98-125. http://paleoanthro.org/media/journal/content/PA20200098.pdf.
Press release from CENIEH

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

Neanderthals made repeated use of the ancient settlement of 'Ein Qashish, Israel

This site provides a rare opportunity to study long-term use of an open air settlement

'Ein Qashish Neanderthal
The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues. Credit: Ekshtain, 2019, CC-BY

The archaeological site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel was a place of repeated Neanderthal occupation and use during the Middle Paleolithic, according to a study released June 26, 2019 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Ravid Ekshtain of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and colleagues.

In the Levant region of the Middle East, the main source of information on Middle Paleolithic human occupation comes from cave sites. Compared to open air settlements, sheltered sites like caves were easily recognized and often visited, and therefore are more likely to record long periods of occupation. The open-air site of 'Ein Qashish in northern Israel, however, is unusual in having been inhabited over an extended prehistoric time period. This site provides a unique opportunity to explore an open-air locality across a large landscape and over a long period ranging between 71,000 and 54,000 years ago.

In a joint collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority Ekshtain and colleagues identified human skeletal remains in 'Ein Qashish as Neanderthal and observed more than 12,000 artifacts from four different depositional units in the same location on the landscape. These units represent different instances of occupation during changing environmental conditions.

From modification of artifacts and animal bones at the site, the authors infer that the occupants were knapping tools, provisioning resources, and consuming animals on-site.

Whereas many open-air settlements are thought to be short-lived and chosen for specialized tasks, 'Ein Qashish appears to be the site of repeated occupations each of which hosted a range of general activities, indicating a stable and consistent settlement system. The authors suggest that within a complex settlement system, open-air sites may have been more important for prehistoric humans than previously thought.

Ekshtain adds: "Ein Qashish is a 70-60 thousand years open-air site, with a series of stratified human occupations in a dynamic flood plain environment. The site stands out in the extensive excavated area and some unique finds for an open-air context, from which we deduce the diversity of human activities on the landscape. In contrast to other known open-air sites, the locality was not used for task-specific activities but rather served time and again as a habitation location. The stratigraphy, dates and finds from the site allow a reconstruction of a robust settlement system of the late Neanderthals in northern Israel slightly before their disappearance from the regional record, raising questions about the reasons for their disappearance and about their interactions with contemporaneous modern humans."

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flint tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Early humans deliberately recycled flint to create tiny, sharp tools

Exceptional conditions at Israel's Qesem Cave preserved 400,000-year-old 'tool kit,' Tel Aviv University researchers say

flint tools
Experimental activity of cutting tubers with a small recycled flake and a close-up of its prehension (inset). Credit: Flavia Venditti/AFTAU

A new Tel Aviv University study finds that prehistoric humans "recycled" discarded or broken flint tools 400,000 years ago to create small, sharp utensils with specific functions. These recycled tools were then used with great precision and accuracy to perform specific tasks involved in the processing of animal products and vegetal materials.

The site of Qesem Cave, located just outside Tel Aviv, was discovered during a road construction project in 2000. It has since offered up countless insights into life in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago.

In collaboration with Prof. Cristina Lemorini of Sapienza University of Rome, the research was led jointly by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti in collaboration with Profs. Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher. All three are members of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was published on April 11 in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In recent years, archaeologists working in caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Italy and Israel have unearthed evidence that prehistoric people recycled objects they used in daily life. Just as we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items today, early hominids collected discarded or broken tools made of flint to create new utensils for specific purposes hundreds of thousands of years ago.

"Recycling was a way of life for these people," Prof. Barkai says. "It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled 'tool kit' at Qesem Cave."

Exceptional conditions in the cave allowed for the immaculate preservation of the materials, including micro residue on the surface of the flint tools.

"We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones," Venditti explains. "We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids' diet and subsistence strategies."

According to the study, signs of use were found on the outer edges of the tiny objects, indicating targeted cutting activities related to the consumption of food: butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing. The researchers used two different and independent spectroscopic chemical techniques: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

"The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They therefore constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives," Venditti says.

She adds, "The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called 'shelf area' was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products."

"This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archaeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools," Prof. Barkai observes. "The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community."

"Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint," Venditti concludes. "On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior which allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential."

The researchers are continuing to investigate prehistoric recycling by applying their analysis to other sites in Africa, Europe and Asia.

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What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink?

Cocktails with Cleopatra?

Israeli scientists resurrect yeast from ancient beer jugs to recreate 5,000-year-old brew

beer antiquity
Beer cruse from Tel Tzafit/Gath archaeological digs, from which Philistine beer was produced. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

What kind of beer did the Pharaohs drink? In ancient times, beer was an important ingredient in people's daily diet. Great powers were attributed to beer in the ancient world, particularly for religious worship and healing properties. The pottery used to produce beer in antiquity served as the basis for this new research. The research was led by Dr. Ronen Hazan and Dr. Michael Klutstein, microbiologists from the School of Dental Medicine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI). They examined the colonies of yeast that formed and settled in the pottery's nano-pores. Ultimately, they were able to resurrect this yeast to create a high-quality beer...that's approximately 5,000 years old.

Many cooks were invited into this'beer kitchen to isolate the yeast specimens from the ancient debris and to create a beer with it. First the scientists reached out to vintners at Kadma Winery. This winery still produces wine in clay vessels, proving that yeast may be safely removed from pottery, even if it had lain dormant in the sun for years.

The yeast was then photographed by Dr. Tziona Ben-Gedalya at Ariel University's Eastern R&D Center. Following her initial examination, the team reached out to archaeologists Dr. Yitzhak Paz from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI), Professor Aren Maeir at Bar Ilan University and Professors Yuval Gadot and Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University. These archaeologists gave them shards of pottery that had been used as beer and mead (honey wine) jugs back in ancient times--and miraculously, still had yeast specimens stuck inside. These jars date back to the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Narmer (roughly 3000 BCE), to Aramean King Hazael (800 BCE) and to Prophet Nehemiah (400 BCE) who, according to the bible, governed Judea under Persian rule.

The researchers, with the help of HUJI student Tzemach Aouizerat, cleaned and sequenced the full genome of each yeast specimen and turned them over to Dr. Amir Szitenberg at the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center for analysis. Szitenberg found that these 5,000-year yeast cultures are similar to those used in traditional African brews, such as the Ethiopian honey wine tej, and to modern beer yeast.

Now it was time to recreate the ancient brew. Local Israeli beer expert Itai Gutman helped the scientists make the beer and the brew was sampled by Ariel University's Dr. Elyashiv Drori, as well as by certified tasters from the International Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), under the direction of brewer and Biratenu owner Shmuel Nakai. The testers gave the beer a thumbs up, deeming it high-quality and safe for consumption.

Dr. Ronen Hazan tests a sample at Hadassah Medical Center-Hebrew University of Jerusalem School. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Ronen Hazan, Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Dental Medicine: "The greatest wonder here is that the yeast colonies survived within the vessel for thousands of years--just waiting to be excavated and grown. This ancient yeast allowed us to create beer that lets us know what ancient Philistine and Egyptian beer tasted like. By the way, the beer isn't bad. Aside from the gimmick of drinking beer from the time of King Pharaoh, this research is extremely important to the field of experimental archaeology--a field that seeks to reconstruct the past. Our research offers new tools to examine ancient methods, and enables us to taste the flavors of the past."

Dr. Yitzchak Paz, Israel Antiquities Authority: "We are talking about a real breakthrough here. This is the first time we succeeded in producing ancient alcohol from ancient yeast. In other words, from the original substances from which alcohol was produced. This has never been done before."

Prof. Yuval Gadot, Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures: "We dug at Ramat Rachel, the largest Persian site in the Judaean kingdom, and found a large concentration of jugs with the letters J, H, D - Yahud - written on them. In a royal site like Ramat Rachel it makes sense that alcohol would be consumed at the home of the Persian governor."

Prof. Aren Maeir, Bar-Ilan University's Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology: "These findings paint a portrait that supports the biblical image of drunken Philistines."

L'chaim! The Israeli research team samples their ancient brew. Credit: Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Press release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem


Balak Mesha Stele

New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history

New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE

Balak Mesha Stele
Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone), plaster replica of the basalt original in the Louvre, Dhiban, Jordan, Iron Age IIB, c. 830 BC - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Photo Daderot,CC0 

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE.

A name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read , 'House of David', could instead read 'Balak', a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), say archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na'aman and Prof. Thomas Römer, in an article published in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

The Mesha Stele was found in the 19th century in the ruins of the biblical town of Dibon in Moab (present day Jordan), and is now in the Louvre. The stone's inscription tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavours of King Mesha of Moab, who is mentioned in the Bible. The stele was cracked in the 19th century and parts of it are missing, but portions of the missing parts are preserved in a reverse copy of the inscription, known as a 'squeeze', made before the stele cracked.

The authors studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze, and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter beth (a 'b' sound).

While the other letters are eroded, the most likely candidate for the monarch's name is 'Balak', the authors say. The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was at Horonaim, a place mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River. "Thus, Balak may be a historical personality like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the Deir Alla inscription, was considered to be an 'invented' figure," they suggest.

"The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading, 'House of David' - accepted by many scholars for more than two decades - is no longer an option," the authors conclude. "With due caution we suggest the name of the Moabite king Balak, who, according to the Balaam story of Numbers 22-24, sought to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel.

"This story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele. Yet, to give a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from the ancient reality, including two personal names: Balaam and Balak."

 

Press release from Taylor & Francis Group

 

New reading of the Mesha Stele inscription has major consequences for biblical history

Line of the inscription lends credence to the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, Tel Aviv University researchers say

 

The legendary King Balak from the Book of Numbers may have been a real historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, the longest extra-biblical inscription in existence.

The Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone dating to the ninth century BCE, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha of Moab, who is also mentioned in the Second Book of Kings in the Old Testament. The stele was found in the 19th century among the ruins of the ancient town of Dibon in Moab, located in today's Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. The stele is on display at the Louvre Museum.

According to the study, a word on Line 31 of the stele that has until now been interpreted as "House of David" in fact refers to King "Balak," who is known as a Moab ruler only from the Book of Numbers.

The new Tel Aviv University-Collège de France study was published on May 2 in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. It was co-authored by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Prof. Nadav Na'aman of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures in collaboration with Prof. Thomas Römer of Collège de France and the University of Lausanne.

A recent exhibit, Mésha et la Bible, held in October 2018 at the Collège de France in Paris in conjunction with the Louvre Museum, showcased the Meshe Stele "squeeze," a reverse copy of the inscription on paper. This exhibition afforded researchers the unique opportunity to take high-resolution photographs of the squeeze.

Although the stele had been cracked in the 19th century, the parts that went missing were preserved in the squeeze, which was made before the stone broke into pieces.

The authors of the new research studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter bet, which corresponds to the English letter "B."

The most likely candidate for the monarch's name is "Balak." The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was "Horonaim," which is mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River.

"We believe Balak was a historical figure like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the famous Deir Alla inscription in Jordan in 1967, was considered an 'invented' character," explains Prof. Finkelstein. "The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading 'House of David' -- accepted by many scholars for more than two decades -- is no longer valid."

In 1994 the French epigrapher André Lemaire suggested that letters missing in Line 31 of the stele would spell "House of David," as in the Tel Dan Stele, which features the term in reference to the Kingdom of Judah. Accordingly, Lemaire proposed that in the mid-ninth century Judah ruled in southern Moab, east of the Dead Sea.

"With due caution, we suggest that the line refers to the Moabite King Balak, who, according to the Balaam story in Numbers 22-24, was supposed to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel," Prof. Na'aman says.

"The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele," Prof. Römer adds. "But to proffer a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from ancient reality, including the names Balaam and Balak."

###

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Press release from the American Friends of the Tel Aviv University


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