Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey; the very interesting finds from a Central Anatolian Pre-Pottery Neolithic site

In this post the reader can learn about some very interesting finds from the PPN site of Aşıklı Höyük, situated in Central Anatolia, Turkey.


Aşıklı Höyük is the earliest known preceramic Neolithic mound site in Central Anatolia. The oldest Levels, 4 and 5, spanning 8,200 to approximately 9,000 cal B.C., associate with round-house architecture and arguably represent the birth of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in the region. Results from upper Level 4, reported here, indicate a broad meat diet that consisted of diverse wild ungulate and small animal species. The meat diet shifted gradually over just a few centuries to an exceptional emphasis on caprines (mainly sheep). Age-sex distributions of the caprines in upper Level 4 indicate selective manipulation by humans by or before 8,200 cal B.C. Primary dung accumulations between the structures demonstrate that ruminants were held captive inside the settlement at this time. Taken together, the zooarchaeological and geoarchaeological evidence demonstrate an emergent process of caprine management that was highly experimental in nature and oriented to quick returns. Stabling was one of the early mechanisms of caprine population isolation, a precondition to domestication.


Few of the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) communities display precocious histories of animal management, although plant cultivation was widespread. Regional contrasts in the early PPN testify to the volatile and locally variable nature of “neolithization” across the Middle East. Only later in the PPN were certain staple animal foods truly domesticated, some in energetically powerful combinations with plants.

Aşıklı Höyük preserves a surprisingly detailed record of human–animal interactions in a formative settlement. The story of socioeconomic change begins in Level 5. The cultural deposits of Level 4 reveal important early trade-offs within the meat diet that are accompanied by evidence of human manipulation, or management, of caprine (sheep and goat) survivorship. Although management practices may give rise to domestic taxa after many generations, it is the early elements of these coevolutionary relations that interest us here; hence, we must look to evidence other than morphologic changes. Zooarchaeological analysis provides information about prey choice and ungulate age-sex structures, and geoarchaeological (micromorphology and phytolith) analyses provide information on physical interactions between humans and ungulates within the confines of the settlement.

Aşıklı Höyük (AH) sits directly on a floodplain of the Melendiz River (elevation 1,119 m)  in Cappadocia, a volcanic landscape carved by wind, water, and humans. This short river originates in the Melendiz Mountains (2,963 m) and drains westward into the salt lake known as Tuz Gölü. Beyond the isolated Melendiz highlands lies the great Taurus mountain chain. Rolling plains and upland meadows of the region once supported wild aurochs (Bos primigenius), horse (Equus ferus), onager (Equus hemionus hydruntinus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), deer (Cervus elaphus, Capreolus capreolus, Dama dama), goats (Capra aegagrus), and sheep (Ovis orientalis).

AH is an artificial mound composed of 16 m of anthropogenic deposits. Levels 4 through 2 preserve a remarkable history of architectural transitions, from semisubterranean round buildings to densely packed free-standing rectangular buildings.

Domesticated cereal grains were in cultivation at this time, although domestic variants are less common in the botanical assemblages than morphologically wild grains and other plant foods. Radiocarbon dates for Level 2 range between 8000 and 7500 cal B.C.

A wide range of animals were hunted during the occupations of upper Level 4, indicating a diversified meat diet. Large prey included goats, aurochs, red deer, boar, horse, onager, roe deer, and fallow deer, but sheep most of all. Among the small prey species hunted, hares (Lepus capensis) and river fish (Cyprinidae carps) were particularly important, but tortoises (Testudo graeca) and pond turtles (Emys/Mauremys sp.), hedgehogs (Erinaceus sp.), bustards (Otis tarda), partridges (Alectoris chukar), and water birds (e.g., ducks, Anatidae) were also eaten. Other large birds, such as common crane (Grus grus), owls (Strigidae), and raptors (Falconiformes) were exploited on occasion, through probably more for raw materials than for food.

A faunal trend through Levels 4–2 reveals a strategic trade-off in the meat diet, from a broad-spectrum strategy that emphasized diverse wild small animals and ungulates to a concerted exploitation of caprines in particular. Caprines constitute less than half of the total number of identified skeletal specimens (NISP) in upper Level 4, but caprines increase gradually to 85–90% by the end of the time series in upper Level 2. The caprines were mainly sheep, which outnumbered goats by a factor of three or more in all periods. The incidence of carnivores hunted by humans and small pests (toads and mice) that entered the site voluntarily changes comparatively little over this span. The contribution of small game declines fastest between Levels 3C and 3B, but this difference is taken up by wild noncaprine ungulates, without interrupting the gradual rise in caprine importance. The replacement of diverse wild taxa with caprines at AH suggests a local, autochthonous evolution of dietary practices. These developments are consistent with faunal patterns observed in early PPN sites in the northern Euphrates region, where caprine- and possibly pig-management practices arose by approximately 8400 cal B.C.


The faunal and geoarchaeological evidence suggest a rapidly evolving predator–prey relationship at AH. A meat diet consisting of diverse ungulate and small prey species in upper Level 4 shifted smoothly over just a few centuries to one that overwhelmingly emphasized caprines. Human–caprine interactions in upper Level 4 were neither classically Epipaleolithic nor classically PPN in habit. Disproportionate culling of young males indicates deliberate manipulation of caprine survivorship by humans by or before 8200 cal B.C. Young caprines were killed throughout the year, but harvesting of juveniles rose sharply as winter approached and continued at moderate levels thereafter. Unfortunately, any interpretation of adult mortality in the caprines is complicated by the likely mixing of managed and hunted caprines in the archaeofaunas. Only the early mortality peak in the caprine assemblage, which is mostly composed of young males, clearly signals management by humans.

The gradual shift in species importance from upper Level 4 through Levels 3 and 2 suggests a local evolution of caprine management in this Central Anatolian site. The management methods appear primitive in that they were oriented to returns over shorter intervals than is typical in other PPN systems, including the methods of the AH Level 2 occupants. The Level 4 folk may have culled fattened young caprines very heavily in late autumn and early winter because they did not want to risk overwintering them when food supplies would be limited, risks of loss high, and foddering necessary. Even if this early system was relatively inefficient or unstable by later standards, considerable productivity could still be gained from captive juvenile and young adult stock. Sheep and goats depend on their mothers until 10 mo of age, but females can reach reproductive maturity as early as 18 mo, bearing their first young at 2 y. The goals of management during the occupations of upper Level 4 were geared principally or exclusively to meat production and multimonth (rather than long-term) live storage. The wide developmental spread of fetal-neonate losses seems to underscore the high risk and loosely experimental nature of early attempts at caprine management at AH. The fact that about one-third of all infantile caprine specimens are from fetuses could reflect indiscriminant culling of young pregnant females or spontaneously aborted lambs. Either way, the pattern implies a steep learning curve in the early evolution of management practices.

One of the more striking energetic outcomes of the evolving predator–prey relationship at AH was the resurgence of large prey as the principle meat source. Taken at face value, this departure from an Epipaleolithic background of broad-spectrum hunting would seem a major reversal in humans’ place in the local food web. However, the ratio of meat to plant energy sources in the early PPN diet may not have increased at all. Indeed the opposite is generally indicated by the many demographic pulses of the Neolithic, implying further “downward” shifts in humans’ position in the food web as cereals and pulses became the main sources of carbohydrates. Groundstone artifacts and remains of cereal grasses, pulses, hackberry, nuts, and other seeds are widespread in upper AH Level 4 and testify to their great economic importance. Whatever humans’ larger motives for manipulating caprine subpopulations, the changes in exploitation at AH were geared to maintaining ever-more reliable access to this meat source.

The trajectory of change at AH roughly parallels trends observed in certain other regions of the Middle East. Selective manipulation of caprines or pigs is evidenced at sites in the upper Euphrates region by 8500–8400 cal B.C., including Nevali Çori, Cafer Höyük, and probably Çayönü, and on the island of Cyprus. As radiocarbon-dating efforts continue at AH, the bulk of the Level 4 sequence will likely fall across this temporal range, confirming AH’s place in a larger web of socioeconomic and ideological innovations. AH is but one of several emergent cases of low-level stock production. Taken together, these cases demonstrate the futility of looking for a single point of origin in animal domestication. Experiments were geographically widespread, highly variable, and couched within a continuing tradition of hunting practices.

(Source: “A forager–herder trade-off, from broad-spectrum hunting to sheep management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey”, by Mary C. Stiner et al., 2014)


Two caprine species, sheep and goat, seem to have been the world’s earliest herded animals (a third caprine species in this region, ibex, does not seem to have been herded), although the dog was domesticated many millennia earlier.

The role of central Anatolian communities in the appearance of the earliest animal herding has been unclear until now, with limited evidence published in relation to other areas in southwest Asia. The Aşıklı evidence (relating to the Cappadocia area of central Anatolia) convincingly demonstrates caprine herding (particularly sheep) as early as any other areas where a well-founded case has been proposed. For example, in the northern part of the Fertile Crescent (modern day northern Syria and southeastern Turkey) early evidence of caprine herding has been suggested for Nevali Çori on the Upper Euphrates based on herd demography, probably contemporary with the best-dated element of the Aşıklı Level 4 sequence (i.e. 8400–8100 cal B.C.). Further east in the Zagros mountains (eastern Iraq and western Iran), evidence suggests goat herding clearly evident at Ganj Dareh based on demography of the goat culling, directly dated to approximately 8000 cal B.C., with animal dung well-attested at contemporary phases of Sheikh-e Abad.

The introduction of caprines to Cyprus occurs in this chronological phase (around 8500–8000 cal B.C.), early pre-pottery Neolithic B in Levantine terms, although pig may have been introduced earlier.

Because evidence clearly indicates caprine herding by 8400 cal B.C., it is clear that central Anatolia sees the appearance of this practice contemporaneously with southeastern Turkey, the northern Levant, and the northern Zagros.

If herding does go back to 9000 cal B.C., the evidence would be strongly in favor of indigenous development of caprine herding. This is certainly very possible because Epipaleolithic evidence from the central Anatolian plateau clearly indicates the common exploitation of caprines through hunting at the site of Pınarbaşı. If the dates indicate the appearance of herded caprines at approximately 8500 cal B.C., a different scenario would be possible. As the evidence of mid-ninth millennium Cyprus suggests, people were able to transport animals in challenging circumstances over distance, whether through exchange or colonization or both. It is thus not impossible that the morphologically wild caprines herded at Aşıklı could have been introduced from other regions.

It is clear that in the ninth millennium cal B.C. caprines were kept very close to the Aşıklı community, with large quantities of dung on the site, including stabling deposits and the perinatal material. The bringing of animals for extended periods into the settlement can help us understand factors involved in the initiation of herding. In this context caprines are integrated closely with household activity in the settlement, and therefore seem likely to be integral to the creation of households and resource accumulation. Caprines would here have been an evident feature of the settlement-scape and, like the houses themselves, would testify to the reproductive success of the household, in both biological and social terms. One presumes that the scale of herd-keeping indicated for most of Aşıklı Level 4, with approximately 50% of the faunal assemblage on site being caprines and so much dung, was based on strong choices selecting for behaviors that in earlier periods had involved the sporadic taming of these animals (whether that process took place in central Anatolia or elsewhere).

The clear evidence of early herding at Aşıklı Level 4, dating to approximately 8400–8200 cal B.C., also points to intriguing variability in human–animal relationships over relatively small distances, and that different communities may have responded to the possibilities of practices, such as animal herding, in a very variable manner. Thus, approximately 150 km to the west of Aşıklı at the contemporary site of Boncuklu in the Konya Plain, dating to approximately 8400–7800 cal B.C., there is no evidence of any major uptake of caprine herding. In terms of meat acquisition the community at Boncuklu had a focus on aurochs and boar hunting, fishing, and fowling. A focus on traditional wetland exploitation by this farming community led to either very modest or no interest in animal herding, even though that community was certainly aware of the practices in Cappadocia, because over 90% of the Boncuklu chipped stone tool assemblage derives from Cappadocia, from obsidian sources near Aşıklı.

(Source: “Origins of caprine herding”, by Douglas Baird, 2014)


Obsidian, the main raw material of the Aşıklı Höyük chipped stone industries, comes from the Cappadocian sources located close to the settlement. Material from these same sources is reported to be found in several geographically distant prehistoric sites in Syria, Levant andCyprus. During the same period with the occupation of Aşıklı, obsidian was obtained from one of these reserves regularly, possibly by the expert knappers of distant Levantine and Cypriot Pre-Pottery Neolithic communities. However, although the Aşıklı community lay very close to the Cappadocian sources, the Aşıklı people remained largely separate from the larger interaction network of shared technologies. It thus can be argued that the Aşıklı obsidian industry was a local production system that developed largely in isolation.

(Source: “Aşıklı Höyük Obsidian Studies: Production, Use and Diachronic Changes”, by Nurcan Kayacan and Çiler Altinbilek-Algül, 2018)


The beads from Aşıklı Höyük were made from a variety of raw materials. These materials include stone, native copper and malachite, clay, mollusc shells, and animal bones and teeth. Waste from the manufacturing of bone and tooth beads occurs in multi-purpose open activity areas and middens, indicating that these artifacts were made on-site. Cylindrical bone beads, red deer canine pendants, bone imitations of red deer canines, and stone disc beads were in use since the early phases of occupation of Aşıklı (Levels 5 and 4). The bead repertoire in the subsequent phases (Levels 3 and 2; 8th millennium BC) expanded to include new types of raw materials such as rock and mineral types that were not used previously. This change coincides with the incorporation of beads in human burials.

(Source: “The Beads from Aşıklı Höyük”, by Sera Yelözer, 2018)


Aşıklı Höyük is situated in a naturally rich area where resources from different biotopes are available within a relatively short distance from the site. The settlement was continuously occupied for approximately 1000 years, beginning in the mid-9th millennium cal BC with round pit type hut structures, succeeded by semi-subterranean sub-oval buildings made of kerpiç blocks.By the time the site was abandoned in the mid-8th mill cal BC (corresponding to Middle PPNBin the Levant), it was a mega-site with rectangular buildings organized in dense habitation clusters. The marked transformations in architecture and spatial organization through time were accompanied by changes in many other aspects of society.

Aşıklı represents a key site for our understanding of the emergence of food production and the Neolithic way of life in Central Anatolia and in Southwest Asia more generally. Indeed, the site offers abundant and relatively well-preserved botanical remains covering a long chronological sequence. This sequence spans the important transitional period from hunting-gathering economies to food production.

(Source: “Plants of Aşıklı Höyük and Changes through Time: First Archaeobotanical Results from the 2010-14 Excavation Seasons”, by Müge Ergun et al., 2018)


The excavations of Aşıklı from 1989 through the early 2000s showcased the 8th millennium BC occupations of the site. Interpretations and evaluations of settlement layout, architectural characteristics, subsistence patterns, and social dimensions of the community have been based mainly on the data from these uppermost levels. For some time this was all that could be widely understood about the site and thus the only basis for scholarly discussion. Towards the end of that fieldwork campaign, however, further excavation in Area 4GH revealed the existence of earlier communities with rather different lifeways and distinct forms of architecture. Even so, these early occupations have remained poorly known and, for this reason, have not figured much in regional discussions of neolithization until now.

The new program of fieldwork and research, begun in 2010, seeks to understand the whole developmental process at Aşıklı, gathering as much information as possible about the early habitation levels while ensuring data comparability to the Level 2 settlement. The first results of eight seasons of work (2010-2017) at the site provide an assessment of the long habitation history and detailed data on the early stages of sedentism, food-production and community behavior. The mostly gradual cultural and biological changes through this uninterrupted sequence prove that Aşıklı is among the earliest, longue durée formative Neolithic sites in Anatolia.

(Source: “Architecture of the Early Settlement and Trends through the Cultural Sequence”, by Mihriban Özbaşaran et al., 2018)


With no dividing walls and little evidence for benches or platforms, each 9th millennium structure at Aşıklı was single-roomed, making it difficult to try to infer how the spaces therein were typically used. In 2010, when the Aşıklı Höyük excavations began anew, the team adopted a micro-scale approach with the intent of providing detailed context-based analyses to answer such questions.

Geochemical sediment analyses, which began only with phosphorus (P), have with the improvements in instrumentation, shifted to a focus on multiple elements simultaneously, there-by enabling a more nuanced reading of household activities.

Excluding instances where post-depositional factors such as leaching and hydrology may affect the integrity of deposits, geochemistry has in conjunction with other variables functioned as a way to identify and interpret archaeological floors. Nowadays, studies of sediment geochemistry have moved to the molecular level, using gas chromatography to identify lipid compounds or to approach questions at the isotopic level.

(Source: “Multi-element Characterization of Floors at Aşıklı Höyük: Contributing to the Identification of Activities and Activity Areas”, by Fatma Kalkan and Rana Özbal)


The inhabitants of Aşıklı Höyük lived in a region now known as « Volcanic Cappadocia », (Central Anatolia) during a period between ∼8350-7300 cal. B.C.. Occupation at the settlement continued for more than 1000 years without interruption. Aşıklı Höyük is, therefore, a unique settlement, with long-term occupation, and understanding the transition to sedentary life in Turkey and the Near East.

Aşıklı Höyük is a specific settlement in terms of understanding the concept of sedentism in a regional aspect. One of the approaches in terms of the Neolithisation of Central Anatolia suggests that this process originates from the Near East, and the developments in the «core area» spread through this region in waves. However, recent excavations and studies have revealed information suggesting a local development in Central Anatolia, as well as some indications attesting to the interaction with the Near East. The excavations carried out at Aşıklı Höyük within the framework of questioning how the Neolithisation process was experienced in the region, and how gradual changes affected the way of life demonstrated that the sedentism began in the region during the first half of the 9th millennium B.C., and the occupation at the settlement continued until the end of the 8th millennium B.C. The transformations during this process can be interpreted through various parameters and are being studied by different disciplines. Hence, the initial results suggests that the changes were gradual and local, and had a distinctive structure that is different to that of the mentioned «core region». This picture suggests that the Neolithisation process developed different from other regions, supporting the multi-regional Neolithisation theory.


The inhabitants of Aşıklı experienced several transformations, economic and otherwise, within the overall settlement sequence. Based on extensive excavations, we now know that changes in settlement patterns, subsistence economy, burial practices and technology, were slow and gradual.

Building plans changed from oval/sub-oval and semi-subterranean buildings into rectangular and above ground structures. In earlier periods, patterns of daily activities were focused on independent buildings and in open areas (Mid-9th Millennium B.C.). In later periods these were shifted to the roof levels of the rectangular, above ground structures. Defined building groups and a dense occupation pattern are evident through the latest phases of the settlement (Mid-8th Millennium B.C.). Over time, the importance of agriculture increased in sub-sistence strategies, sheep/goat were controlled, and changes occurred in burial traditions and lithic technologies during the latest phases (2C-B-A) of occupation. The ability to track these changes through time makes it possible to study the concept of sedentism and the process of transition to a sedentary way of life in terms of the inner social dynamics of the community. Hearths, as a part of these broader social changes, can be studied together with the changes observed in other aspects of social practices and the settlement.

Understanding fireplaces/hearths is critical in reconstructing the daily life at Aşıklı. With their gradually changing structural features and different possible functions, hearths provide information as to the use of space that helps researchers reconstruct the daily life and the social processes. Hearths constitute an important parameter in understanding the characteristics and possible functions of the interior spaces and buildings.

In the 9th millennium B.C., the open areas characteristically have roasting pits, which were used for food preparation and cooking. They are more widespread and diverse than the hearths located inside the buildings. They are not systematically located in the same place in each area; they are located at various points of the open areas. The pebble-paved hearths in-side the semi-subterranean and sub-oval buildings are oval in form and located at the center of the buildings. Based on their location and form, and assuming that cooking activities were mainly conducted in the open areas, we can surmise that hearths in semi-subterranean and sub-oval buildings were used for heating and illumination. In other words, it can be said that during the 9th millennium B.C., fireplaces in open areas were used for cooking, while those inside of buildings were mainly used for light and heating. At the same time, all fireplaces could be evaluated as media of creating social spaces where people came together for eating, feasting, and conversations.


During the 8th millennium B.C., the practice of building hearths and roasting pits in open spaces and buildings was abandoned. Hearths were only located inside buildings. Typical Aşıklı hearths, with their pebble-paved floors and border stones, were dominant. The distinction between heating and cooking disappeared. Hearths were rectangular in form and located in the corners of the rooms. The transformation in building construction techniques also defined the shapes and locations of the hearths.

In the 8th millennium B.C., hearths location and design was linked to some rules for building construction building and renewal. The hearths were rectangular in plan, they were not placed at the center of rooms and no more than one hearth was built in a room. The hearth location was not changed as long as the space was used. Not all buildings contained hearths. When a building with a hearth was renewed, however, the new building continued to have a hearth. Moreover, the materials used to make hearths, construction techniques and shapes, apart from additions such as chimneys, aprons, etc., are similar. Hearths were carefully built and utilized, and were continuously repaired and renewed in order to prolong their lives. These renewals were in line with the use of space. These rules were followed by the inhabitants until the settlement was abandoned. As such, hearths held a defining role in the organization of residential spaces, building continuity and use of space.

In the severe winters of Central Anatolia, hearths must have been important for heating purposes, as well as food preparation and cooking. Life at Aşıklı generally occurred on roof levels, possibly during spring and summer months, and moved into the enclosed spaces during the winter. Therefore, more time was spent inside the buildings during that time and in rooms containing hearths. By analyzing and comparing the buildings with and without hearths at Aşıklı, it is seen that the number and size of both types did not increase in time (Phases 2D-C-B-A). No significant changes were observed in the construction methods and sizes of the hearths.

This supports arguments that:

• Hearths were the essential elements of the living spaces, and the buildings with hearth were main living area.

• More people than usual spent their time in a room during periods of cold weather, possibly in the rooms where the hearths are located. It could also be argued that the hearths were the physical medium in motivating people together.

• Hearths represent a part of the continuity that existed in construction elements such as roof opening entrances and ladders and the construction of buildings and building groups, were focused on intergenerations issues.

Another important aspect of the buildings with hearths is that the multi-roomed buildings, which had hearths, generally contained an additional small room. This pattern reveals that almost all of these multi-roomed buildings, with an additional room that is too small to live in, also had hearths. Although there is no in situ evidence in these small rooms except for scattered pebble stones, it could be assumed that these small rooms also contained organic materials such as wood. Considering the cold and rainy months of the Volcanic Cappadocia region, one can suggest that such small rooms were functioned as storages, for dry wood, especially oak; and it could be further interpreted that different seasonal activities were held in relation to the organization of space inside these buildings.


During the 8th millennium B.C., the organization of life in the Residential Area differs from the Special Purpose Buildings Area, a communal area used by the inhabitants. Typical Aşıklı hearths were dominant both in the Residential Area and the Special Purpose Buildings Area. Hearths with chimneys and aprons, hearths that had structural changes, and rectangular hearths with narrow mouths, only appeared in the Residential Area, tandoris and dome-shaped oven are only found in the Special Purpose Buildings Area. This typological differences indicate that activities related to fire such as cooking, drying, heating, lighting were carried out in different types of fireplaces (hearths and ovens), and they were built in relation with building practices such as domestic, communal and the use of space.

The Special Purpose Buildings Area contains tandoris and a dome-shaped oven. The differences with the dome-shaped ovens within rooms at Çatalhöyük and Cafer Höyük, which are the chronological successors of Aşıklı, are that they were built for daily activities. Therefore these ovens are defined as a part of the «house». In contrast, the dome-shaped oven at Aşıklı is located only in the special area where collective consumption activities were organized, and it is as big as the building/room it is inside. This indicates that this oven was not used for daily/kitchen practices, but for communal activities. Therefore the communal oven in the Special Purpose Buildings Area in the 8th millennium can be interpreted as a developed form, and a similar communal use of the roasting pits of the 9th millennium B.C.

The fireplaces/hearths at Aşıklı were at the core of production, consumption and sharing in the life of its inhabitants. Over time, hearths created social spaces, giving function and meaning to the lived world. Through this, they shaped the indoor life brought about through sedentism. In this role, fireplaces furthered the sedentary lifestyle and the new relationships between the «hearth», «family»and «home».

(Source: “Live together around fire: Hearths and the use of space at the onset of sedentism. Aşıklı Höyük (Turkey), a case study”, by Melis Uzdurum, 2018)


Zooarchaeological, paleobotanical, and architectural data from Aşıklı Höyük show that human strategies for managing caprines underwent considerable evolution over a 1000-year period.

In this study, we have developed a new and independent test for reconstructing the onset of and changes in the scale of stock-keeping with time based on the chemical composition of soluble salt in archaeological sediments, specifically urine-derived salts as proxies for the scope of metabolic activity on the mound.

Micromorphological examination and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy of middens and structural materials revealed the presence of numerous salts, including nitratine crystals (NaNO3), an unusual mineral that is typically found in extremely dry, saline environments rich in Na+ and NO3− . This mineralogical oddity first prompted us to explore the soluble salt (Na+, Cl−, NO3−, SO42−, K+, Ca2+, and Mg2+) and nitrogen isotopic composition of the mound that might explain the presence of nitratine.

Here, we present a previously undescribed approach to interpreting the geochemical composition of an archaeological tell and its implications for early animal domestication. We measure the soluble salt composition of more than 100 samples as a function of material type, location in the mound, and age. For the purposes of this paper, we mainly focus on the patterns exhibited by [Na+], [Cl−], and [NO3−], which reach unusually high levels in the archaeological layers that are only partially explained by sources such as rainfall, wood ash, and natural sediment incorporated in building materials. In addition, we analyze nitrogen isotopes to identify the source of soluble nitrogen.

Our key finding is that urine—from ungulates and humans combined—provides the best explanation for the unusual mineralogy and salt composition of the tell deposits. We present a simple mass balance model that provides constraints on the scale of change in the number of caprines and humans that lived on the tell over ~1000 years of continuous occupation.


The abundant soluble salts detected in nearly all the archaeological layers at Aşıklı Höyük most likely have multiple natural and anthropogenic sources, and our goal through construction of a simple mass balance model is to isolate the anthropogenic (human and livestock) component of salt that cannot be explained from other sources.

An important but intractable question for archaeologists who study the forager-producer economic transition concerns the scale of human investment in animal management and the pace of its increases with time. This study uses urine salt inputs as a metabolic scale of the intensity of caprine management practices at Aşıklı Höyük by tracking, in relative terms, the growth of the community and its animals with each succeeding archaeological level.

Previous archaeological work at Aşıklı Höyük has shown that caprines were held captive and managed in small numbers inside the settlement from level 5 onward and that caprine management developed into a key part of the economy over the course of one millennium. What has been lacking, however, is reliable information about the scale of increase in biological (metabolic) activity on the mound, which we treat as a partial proxy of changing economic investments by the human inhabitants. Because some caprines were hunted rather than managed, especially in the earlier periods, independent evidence of the scope of captivity can be gleaned from the urine inputs from humans and livestock combined. At Aşıklı Höyük, the urine inputs greatly outstrip architectural evidence of human population density in each layer, as loosely indicated by the number of residential buildings (a topic of ongoing study).

Five key outcomes of our study concern changes in human behavior as quantified by our new methodological approach. First, there are 5 to10× increase in [Na+], [Cl−], and [NO3−] from levels 5 to 4 and 10 to1000× increase from levels 5 to 3 at Aşıklı Höyük. Second, urine inputs decline somewhat from levels 3 to 2, when higher architectural density and other data suggest that animal corrals were shifted to the mound periphery or areas of the mound that have yet to be excavated. Third, there is a marked spatial variation in urine inputs by humans and livestock in each layer, observations supported by micromorphological analyses of dung and midden. Middens and some alleyways must have been used as toilets by the humans. Animal urine accumulated not only wherever livestock were penned but also where humans used midden and dung as a binder in plasters and, probably more significantly, around fireplaces where humans recycled dung into fuel. The fourth outcome of the study is proof that simple techniques for determining abundances of major elements and δ15Ν values allow for the identification of urine as the dominant soluble salt contributor. The last outcome, also methodological, is that our approach can potentially be used to provide quantitative clues for animal management and/or human occupation in areas where there is a lack of other physical evidence (i.e., bones, dung layers, and major architecture). The analysis of urine salts as indications of metabolic activity in sites is only feasible; however, if chemical preservation in sediments is very good, such as in thickly stratified arid land tells with dense architectural features and in dry caves.

Returning to the larger questions posed by this research, the urine salt data demonstrate large increases in the scope and intensity of livestock keeping at Aşıklı Höyük over a span of 1000 years. The results contribute to evidence of a local (endemic) evolution of management practices. Aşıklı Höyük is located well outside (west of) the Fertile Crescent area, once believed to be the exclusive heartland of Neolithic emergence. Results such as ours demonstrate the existence of a much broader, diffuse network of societies involved in domestication processes and the evolution of Neolithic lifeways in Southwest Asia. The urine salt data put a scale to the evolutionary process at Aşıklı Höyük and thus represent a unique contribution in domestication research. Future studies involving estimates of human populations across archaeological levels will aid in distinguishing animal and human contributions to the soluble salt in archaeological deposits.

(Source: “Urine salts elucidate Early Neolithic animal management at Aşıklı Höyük, Turkey”, by J. T. Abell et al., 2019)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides


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