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A person pours soil into a flotation machine to extract carbonised plant remains

Ancient dung has helped provide archaeologists with the earliest evidence of animals being farmed for food.

Humans were tending animals approximately 12,500 years ago in Abu Hureyra, Syria, according to the research involving Durham’s Department of Archaeology.

Traditionally, archaeologists have looked for changes in the shapes of animal bone that vary between wild and domesticated animal populations as evidence of the move to tended animals.

While this provides a lot of information, changes to bone shape happened well after the process of tending and domestication began, leaving human’s earliest experiments with animal management hard to track.

That’s where animal poo comes in.

Dung spherulites

Many herbivores form tiny calcium-based balls - called dung spherulites - in their intestines, which can be found in accumulations of dung produced where live animals are being kept.

Evidence of dung spherulites lets archaeologists examine the period before full domestication to see when people first began bringing live animals to sites to care for them.

Soil samples from Abu Hureyra contained an accumulation of spherulites found outside an ancient mud hut, which enabled the researchers to approximately date when the dung deposits were made.

As a result, they said that hunter-gatherers were bringing live animals, most likely sheep, to Abu Hureyra between 12,800 and 12,300 years ago to tend them.

They said this was almost 2,000 years earlier than seen elsewhere, but was in line with what might be expected for the Euphrates Valley.

Hunting to agriculture

Durham’s role in the research was led by Emeritus Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy.

Professor Rowley-Conwy studied the animal bones from Abu Hureyra which showed that hunter-gatherers began to increasingly rely on sheep to supplement a diet based mostly on hunted gazelle, although they also caught small game such as birds, hare, and fox.

First excavated in the 1970s Abu Hureyra continues to be an important site to help understand where and when agriculture was first developed.

Find out more

  • Read the research in the journal PLOS ONE.

  • Find out more about Emeritus Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy.

  • Our Department of Archaeology is a leading centre for the study of archaeology and is ranked 8th in the world (QS World University Rankings by subject 2022). We are an inclusive, vibrant and international community. Our students develop knowledge and gain essential and transferable skills through research-led teaching and lab-based training. Feeling inspired? Visit our Archaeology webpages to learn more about our postgraduate and undergraduate programmes. 

  • This research was led by Alexia Smith, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, USA.