Ancient Pee Reveals Earliest Stages of Animal Domestication
A UA geosciences undergraduate developed an innovative method of using ancient urine salts to reveal when humans in ancient Turkey began shifting from hunting to herding.

Sarah Fecht, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science
April 22, 2019


From left: Study authors Jay Quade and Jordan Abell collect samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding.
From left: Study authors Jay Quade and Jordan Abell collect samples at the site of an ancient Turkish settlement where salts left behind by animal and human urine give clues about the development of livestock herding. (Photo: Güneş Duru, Courtesy Aşıklı Höyük Project Archive)

Humans made a big leap in their domestication of animals starting about 10,450 years ago, according to new research from an international team that includes University of Arizona researchers.

At the beginning of that time period, people hunted game to obtain meat, said UA co-author Mary Stiner. By about 1,000 years later, community members were managing herds of sheep and goats for food, the team found. The research was published in Science Advances on April 17.

Anthropologists consider the transition from hunting and gathering to farming and herding to be a crucial turning point in the history of humanity.

"We have been working very hard to understand the evolution and origins of these domestication relationships," said Stiner, a UA Regents’ Professor of anthropology.

"This happens long before you have an animal or plant truly transformed by interactions with people," Stiner said. "In this time period, we’re working on the problem of the entry-level context of the human-animal relationship."

To reconstruct the scale and pace of change during the first phases of animal domestication, lead author Jordan Abell, then an undergraduate in geosciences at the UA, figured out a way to use urine salts left by humans and animals at an ancient site in Turkey to calculate how the density of animals and humans changed over time.

"This is the first time, to our knowledge, that people have picked up on salts in archaeological materials and used them in a way to look at the development of animal management," said Abell, now a graduate student at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York.

Stiner said, "One of the coolest things about this is that Jordan was a bachelor’s student and this was part of his senior project. I’m so impressed someone at his level came up with such an original piece of work."

Scholars think the intensive food production that started about 11,000 years ago – a time period called the Neolithic Revolution – allowed cities to grow, led to technological innovation and eventually enabled human civilization as we know it today.

The paper by Abell, Stiner and their colleagues is "Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey." Their co-authors are UA geoscientist Jay Quade, Susan Mentzer of the University of Tübingen in Germany, and Guneş Duru, Melis Uzdurum and Mihriban Özbaşaran of Istanbul University in Turkey. The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Scientists knew people at the site had captive animals because of accumulations of dung and other evidence. However, reconstructing the scale and pace at which humans were domesticating sheep and goats was difficult using just bone fragments and fossilized dung, Abell said.

The researchers wondered what other clues might have been left behind by a bunch of animals onsite. Mentzer previously found chemical compounds in the soil that might be from urine.

"And we thought, well, humans and animals pee, and when they pee, they release a bunch of salt," Abell said. "At a dry place like this, we didn’t think salts would be washed away and redistributed."

The various levels of the archeological dig at Aşıklı Höyük span the time before human settlement through the time when the settlement was abandoned – a period of about 1,000 years.

The team collected 113 samples from all across the site–from trash piles to bricks and hearths, and from different time periods — to look at patterns in the sodium, nitrate and chlorine salt levels. The researchers estimated how many humans and animals the ancient salt deposits represented by using information on urine salts from modern-day feedlots in which animal numbers are known.

The researchers have other archaeological evidence, such as the numbers of structures, to use to estimate the number of humans.

At the lowest levels of the archeological dig, the natural layers before the settlement was built, the researchers found almost no urine salts. Salt levels in the layer with the first evidence of human habitation increased slightly.  

The team found a spike in urine salts as much as 1,000 times more than the pre-settlement levels from 10,000 to 9,700 years ago. That jump in salts indicates a rapid increase in the number of occupants ­– both human and animal. After that, the concentrations decrease slightly.

Abell said those changes line up with other evidence from the site that suggests the people initially hunted sheep and goats, then started keeping just a few animals, and shifted to having large numbers of animals corralled within the settlement. Finally, as animal numbers increased even more, the animals were moved to the periphery of the site.

Stiner said, "In the very beginning, a family might have one or two kids or lambs they raised through the winter – kind of a meat supplement. By 500 years in, there were more sheep and goats than people – and on and on, as they became more and more dependent on the animals."

The team calculated that 10,450 years ago, the density of people and animals occupying the settlement at Aşıklı Höyük jumped from near zero to approximately one person or animal for every 10 square meters. Modern-day semi-intensive feedlots have densities of about one sheep for every 5 square meters.

The researchers hope to find a way to differentiate between human and animal urine salts. They think the methodology could be applied in other arid areas and could be especially helpful at sites where other physical evidence, such as bones, is lacking.

Stiner said the new method could help to clarify the larger picture of humanity’s relationship to animals during this transitional period. "We might find similar trends in other archaeological sites of the period in the Middle East."


Resources for the media


Researcher contacts:

Mary Stiner

University of Arizona




Jordan Abell

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory




Media Contact:

Mari N. Jensen

UA College of Science





Sarah Fecht

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory