Monday, 28 April 2014

Animal dung and the beginnings of sheep domestication in the Near East?

There's an exciting paper out today in PNAS on Aşıklı Höyük, an early sedentary pre-pottery Neolithic site in central Anatolia, occupied a millennia earlier than that site oft discussed on this blog, Çatalhöyük. This paper by Stiner et al. is a great example of research that brings together work from different archaeological specialists to produce a coherent story, supported by multiple lines of evidence. The argument is based around the zooarchaeological analysis of animal remains, which demonstrates a shift over the occupation of the site from a broad spectrum of wild species, to a dominance of sheep by 8200 cal BC. However it is the geoarchaeological analysis that arguably provides direct evidence of deliberate animal management, and as a micromorphologist with a special interest in all things coprolite and dung related, I am very happy to see that this technique is one of the highlights of the paper! (Phytoliths also get a mention!).

The researchers identify accumulations of animal dung deposits within enclosed spaces using micromorphology, and suggest that animals were held captive in these areas. Just to play devil's advocate (and because I promised I'd do more critiques) let's have a look at those deposits in a bit more detail. On closer examination it is unclear whether they are really 'stabling' or just the sporadic presence of dung.  I suspect the use of this noun may be overstating things a bit. The researchers identify what are described as primary dung accumulations between the structures, on the basis that they are micro-laminated and inter-bedded (this means that they formed thin horizontal layers with other material in between the dung layers).

On reading the micromorphology descriptions we see that these areas between the structures are midden (according to the caption in Figure S3, image F) and an open area (Space 1, 7 and 13 according to Table S.8), and there is also dung identified in a post mold. The earlier dung deposits of level 4 appear to be sporadic and thin. It is not until the transition of level 4/3 (4/3C?) that we see the multiple thick layers with a significant lateral extent that could suggest 'stabling'. This makes sense. It would not be until animals were kept in larger numbers that we would expect to see 'stabling'. But then the latest deposits (3E/3D) go back to being a bit ambiguous. A burnt dung layer from the later level 3E/3D is suggested as being evidence that a midden area was being used to keep livestock. This clarifies the problem with 'midden' as a space/deposit category! And it is also quite possible that this simply represents an accumulation of dung on the midden surface that was used as fuel for some sort of in situ burning activity, as is seen frequently at Çatalhöyük (e.g. Shillito et al. 2011).

Interestingly the deposits described from level 3E/3D (can't find the specific date for this level) sound incredibly similar to those seen at Çatalhöyük, where we also have trampled dung and occasional in situ burning of dung in place, albeit at a later date, in an area that was once 'midden' but then shifted to being a 'street like' deposit with frequent fire spots (Shillito and Ryan 2013). Alas it is difficult to assess whether these areas are truly similar without seeing the area in detail, and the only photos in the paper are not a high enough resolution. Also, check out the depth of that trench (Fig S3, A)!!

EDIT - paper preview image removed 19 April 2016 as it was doing weird things to the blog layout

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