Skip to main content

Human-animal interactions in early sedentary and urban societies in the Near East and northern Africa: microarchaeology of livestock dung

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MICROARCHAEODUNG (Human-animal interactions in early sedentary and urban societies in the Near East and northern Africa: microarchaeology of livestock dung)

Reporting period: 2016-06-01 to 2018-05-31

Across the world and throughout history, animals have long played a central role in human life. People have a remarkably rich and diverse range of relationships with animals. From the food we eat and the clothes we wear, to symbolic and religious beliefs, our day to day lives are inextricably bound up in complex interactions with animals. The relationships between humans and animals can be environmental, economic, social, cultural, symbolic, and ritualistic and all of these may be interrelated.
The MICROARCHEODUNG project has explored the many and varied interactions which humans have with animals in key moments tracking the emergence of early agricultural societies and domestication of animals in the Near East around 10,000 years ago and from the still little investigated North Africa, a critical area with implications for surrounding regions including the Mediterranean and the Sahara. The project has highlighted the overlooked importance of livestock dung as an important source of manure, fuel, and temper in building materials and ways in which this can inform on ecological and social aspects of animal management at the dawn of agriculture and in more complex farming societies. The MICROARCHEODUNG project developed, standardized and integrated much-needed interdisciplinary methods for multi-proxy studies of animal dung as an important archaeological material that is routinely overlooked or missed using traditional excavation and sampling procedures. The project has emphasized the usefulness of integrating ethnoarchaeological and laboratory-based analytical methods from the fields of geosciences, botany and biochemistry in delineating human-animal relationships in Archaeology.
Through a range of interdisciplinary international collaborations, the project has been investigating contemporary research issues in Archaeology of direct relevance to everyday life today including: human-environment relationships and responses to climate change, agricultural development and animal management practices, human and animal diet, food and fuel supply and consumption, and the built environment more widely.
The MICROARCHEODUNG project has established a standard state-of-the-art interdisciplinary methodology for insight into livestock dung as a valuable source of information on a range of environmental, ecological, socio-economic and cultural aspects of past life-ways and the developments early farming and more complex urban communities in key research areas, including in the central Zagros, central Anatolia, the Levant, and northern Africa. The major outcome is the demonstration that dung is an ubiquitous material in most human settlements after the domestication of herds, but even before, thus providing us with critical information on the earliest stages of animal management and domestication, as morphological changes in their bones may be delayed by up to around one thousand years. At the beginning of the project very little had been investigated on the origins of animal management and domestication through the study of livestock dung, and direct evidence from animal faecal remains in northern Africa in particular was almost absent.
Through five workpackages, the project has 1) established a state-of-the art interdisciplinary methodology that integrates field, micromorphological, plant and faecal microfossil, and biomolecular analyses; 2) developed comparative modern livestock dung collections and models; 3) conducted vital experimental studies on the presence and preservation of dung and impact of burning to study fuel use; 4) investigated human-animal interactions and development of early farming and complex societies; and 5) shared methods and findings across the scientific community and the society at large.
The selected case-studies have shown that animal dung provides important new direct evidence for tracing human-animal relationships in different regions and key episodes of environmental and social change. Results from MICROARCHEODUNG indicate considerable chronological and contextual variation in human-animal inter-relations across territories, thus providing new insights into early farming practices, animal management and diet, and ecological diversity through time. In addition, in the central Zagros and central Anatolia, traces of omnivore faecal remains have been found within early Neolithic occupations, and identified as human coprolites, as indicated by coprostanol contents through biomolecular analyses, providing critical new information on early settled agricultural diet. MICROARCHEODUNG results also demonstrate the widespread use of animal dung for fuel purposes, a practice detected at early Neolithic settlements across the Near East and the Eastern Maghreb, and resource still used by many rural communities today.
The ground-breaking research carried out within MICROARCHEODUNG has not only developed and established new state-of-the-art analytical approaches, it has also provided exceptional archaeological, ethnoarchaeological and experimental datasets for baseline comparative purposes and the development of models on factors affecting the composition, preservation and taphonomy of animal dung, and the environmental and management practices influencing these, establishing a major foundation for further research on this key interdisciplinary research area.
As publications are recent, or submitted and under peer-review, and a number are in preparation, a full evaluation of the exploitable results and current impact will be apparent in the next few years, including in citation indices and use of the project's datasets in open repositories. It is clear that this research has been received with great interest through a range of scientific meetings, invited talks in different countries, as well as a range of outreach activities to diverse public audiences.
MICROARCHEODUNG has provided new insights into human-animal interactions and the developments of early farming and urban settlements in key regions for delineating the origins and spread of agriculture through time. The archaeological study of human-animal relationships, and particularly of livestock dung, provide important insights into issues of global concern today, such as the preservation of biodiversity, resilience and use of natural resources, fuel availability and consumption and how these change in response to changing climate and greater human manipulation and impact on environment, and the resilience and sustainability of social and cultural practices. Overall, the project has contributed to issues raised by a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, addressing critical questions on emergence of societal resilience, food security, energy and fuel production and consumption, and its environmental impacts across territories.
microarcheodung.jpg