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Ancient dung study from Abu Hureya, Syria, reveals new insights.

The village mound of Abu Hureyra in Syria is one of the earliest and most important early farming settlements in the world. It was excavated by archaeologist Andrew Moore in 1972 and 1973, before it was flooded by a nearby hydroelectric scheme.

Occupied by hunter-gatherers as early as 13,000 years ago, its earliest inhabitants subsisted off plant foods and seasonal migrations of gazelle antelope that were hunted in game drives that involved the efforts of several communities. They were unusual people in that they carefully stored their food for later, and occupied small round huts roofed with brushwood and reeds. The environment was rich in food resources, so people lived there for 1300 years, until they abandoned the site because of drought. By about 11,000 farmers settled on the mound and cultivated rye.

A recent study of dung from the early levels used tiny calcium carbonate clumps found in animal droppings to show that the inhabitants burned such dung as fuel. Not only that, but the researchers received hints that people were penning animals, perhaps sheep, immediately outside their dwellings. This suggests that the people had developed animal management practices even before cultivating plants, which hints that animal husbandry may have begun some 2,000 years before plant cultivation, not the other way around, as is commonly assumed. Similar studies at other sites may confirm this changing scenario.

Want more in-depth archaeology? Read Archaeology Worldwide magazine.

Image: Extracting dung remains from soil samples collected from Abu Hureyra

Credit: Andrew Moore/Rochester Institute of Technology