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World’s first farmers traced to 12,800-year-old Stone Age village

Lead author said: "This is almost 2,000 years earlier than what we have seen elsewhere."

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A closeup shot of a horned white goat on a farm
The earliest farmers brought wild goats, pigs and sheep back to their huts. (Oakland Images via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

The world's first farmers have been traced to a 12,800-year-old Stone Age village in the Middle East.

Ancient dung reveals the earliest evidence of animals being reared to produce food for humans.

People were tending sheep and possibly cattle, goats and pigs nearly 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, say an international team.

They lived in Abu Hureyra in present-day Syria - now a prehistoric archaeological site in the Euphrates valley.

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The discovery is based on an analysis of remnants found in soil gathered during excavations in the 1970s.

Lead author Professor Alexia Smith, of the University of Connecticut, said: "Until recently, it has been hard to find a method that would allow archaeologists to examine the very earliest experiments with animal tending prior to fully-fledged animal domestication and herding.

"So it is really exciting to see remnants of animal dung can help us track the differing ways that people interacted with animals early on.

"We were surprised when we realized hunter-gatherers were bringing live animals to Abu Hureyra between 12,800 and 12,300 years ago and keeping them outside of their hut.

"This is almost 2,000 years earlier than what we have seen elsewhere, although it is in line with what we might expect for the Euphrates Valley.

“As hunter-gatherers began to experiment, bringing live animals to the site - even if it was for a short period of time - they would have had no idea of the massive societal changes they were setting in motion.

"The way we live today rests heavily on this shift from a reliance on hunting and gathering wild plants and animals to a dependence on growing and herding our food."

Sheep, goats and other herbivores form tiny calcium-based balls, or spherulites, in their intestines which can be found in accumulations of excrement where they are kept.

They shed light on the period before full domestication began to see when our ancestors started bringing live animals to sites to care for them.

The deposits from Abu Hureyra were unearthed outside an old mud hut - enabling dating. They were most likely to have come from sheep.

Traditionally, archaeologists have looked for changes in the shape of bones that vary between wild and domesticated populations to identify signs of agriculture.

A cow sitting in the field full of dried grass and dung
Agriculture sowed the seeds of the modern age - spawning permanent settlements. (Light and Vision via Shutterstock)

But these happened long after the process started, leaving primitive experiments with management difficult to track.

Co-author Prof Peter Rowley-Conwy, of Durham University, studied animal bones from Abu Hureyra.

He found hunter-gatherers began to increasingly rely on sheep to supplement a diet based mostly on gazelle. They also caught small game such as birds, hares and foxes.

Eventually, by the Neolithic period (10,600–7,800 years ago), herded sheep and goats became more important than hunted prey.

Huts were replaced with mudbrick houses. The trends correspond with accumulations of the dung in Abu Hureyra.

They indicate small numbers of animals were being brought into the community - to stay.

Prof Rowley-Conwy said: "The people living at Abu Hureyra at the time were tending the very earliest domestic sheep which were small-scale household animals, not a big herd like we might expect to see today.

"It is also amazing our colleagues had the foresight 50 years ago to take soil samples that are only now revealing their secrets thanks to methods that simply didn't exist when the samples were collected.

"There has been a staggering increase in what we are able to do now which is helping us learn even more about our ancestors."

Abu Hureyra continues to be important in helping us understand where and when agriculture was first developed.

The site now lies submerged under Lake Assad following the closure of a dam, close to the modern-day city of Raqqa, in northern Syria, within an area known as the Fertile Crescent.

Different layers of habitation built up on top of one another for over 5,550 years with the oldest including a small settlement created by hunter-gatherers.

It was first settled at the very end of the Palaeolithic or Stone Age, dating to 13,300 to11,400 years ago.

Later, a series of villages were built above the early settlement by farming and herding communities during the Neolithic.

Together the different layers, along with studies of ancient seeds, animal bone, architecture, and tools provide detailed information on humans' transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Prof Andrew Moore, of the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, who led the expedition which dug up the dung, said: "Professor Smith's research represents a major advance in our understanding of the critical early stages of animal management leading to full domestication."

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, adds to evidence farming originated in the Near East rather than in Asia.

Agriculture sowed the seeds of the modern age - spawning permanent settlements. Cities and civilizations grew as crops and animals were farmed to meet demand.

The global population rocketed from some five million people 10,000 years ago to eight billion today.

In the Near East, climatic changes at the end of the last ice age brought seasonal conditions that favored annual plants like wild cereals.

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