Turkey, prehistoric Cattle Go Wild

Çatalhöyük in TurkeyFrom Science:

Prehistoric Cattle Go Wild

By Michael Balter

The 9500-year-old archaeological site of Çatalhöyük, in south-central Turkey, has the first known mirrors, the first paintings on human-made surfaces–and, until now, the first known domesticated cattle.

But a new analysis of cattle bones at the site concludes that last claim is wrong.

The finding could also shed new light on the spectacular paintings and sculptures of bulls found at the site.

Çatalhöyük was called the first known site of cattle domestication in a widely cited 1969 Science paper (11 April 1969, p. 177) by the late zooarchaeologist Dexter Perkins.

Perkins drew his conclusions from excavations during the 1960s, when faunal analysis was in its infancy, and he relied on the size of the cattle bones as a guide to their domestication status. (Wild animals are usually larger.)

Since the early 1990s, a new team of faunal experts led by Nerissa Russell of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Louise Martin of the Institute of Archaeology in London has been using more sophisticated sampling and analytical methods, relying not just on size but also on the sex and age patterns of the cattle.

In the December issue of Current Anthropology, the team reports from its analysis of 4321 specimens of cattle bone that the cattle were wild, at least during the first three-quarters of the 1200 year life of the settlement.

Although the team’s conclusions are sound, it is “a little strange” that the cattle at Çatalhöyük were wild, says zooarchaeologist Simon Davis of the Portuguese Institute of Archaeology in Lisbon, because new evidence suggests there was cattle herding–a first step towards full domestication–more than 10,000 years ago on the island of Cyprus, as well as slightly later than Çatalhöyük at other Near Eastern sites.

Zooarchaeologist Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. says that the findings make sense given the symbolic status of the animals, whose horns and skulls adorn the walls of many of the settlement’s mudbrick houses, she says.

“Elsie the cow hardly makes an impressive cult figure,” Zeder adds–but wild cattle do.

As for why the settlers did not domesticate their cattle, Russell speculates that the people of Çatalhöyük might have been reluctant to do so.

“There may have been some kind of resistance that had to do with the symbolic meaning of the wild animals,” she says.

Related sites:

The official Çatalhöyük Web site

Çatalhöyük site at the Science Museum of Minnesota

See also here.

The keeping of livestock began in the Ancient Near East and underpinned the emergence of complex economies and then cities. Subsequently, it is there that the world’s first empires rose and fell. Now, ancient DNA has revealed how the prehistory of the region’s largest domestic animal, the cow, chimes with these events: here.

History of cheese: here.

From hunting to farming: here.

Cyprus: archaic age find.

Iran: dog found buried with human.

To a human living in North America about 9,400 years ago, dogs may have been both trusted friends and loyal protectors. But they were something else too: dinner: here.

10 thoughts on “Turkey, prehistoric Cattle Go Wild

  1. RE: Turkey: Prehistoric Cattle Go Wild
    Posted by: Michael Balter (View Website)
    Date: 01/01/06 at 11:38 AM

    For more on Catalhoyuk, read “The Goddess and the Bull” by Michael Balter (Free Press 2005, out in paperback in April 2006 from Left Coast Press.

    RE: Turkey: Prehistoric Cattle Go Wild
    Posted by:

    Date: 01/01/06 at 12:02 PM (7M3w ago)
    Thanks for your reaction, Michael. Your book is about important questions.


  2. Bush Administration Will Fight Mad Cow Testing
    Posted by: “Compañero” companyero@bellsouth.net chocoano05
    Wed May 30, 2007 5:54 pm (PST)

    Bush Administration Will Fight Mad Cow Testing 29 May 2007
    The Bush administration said Tuesday it will fight to keep
    meatpackers from testing all their animals for mad cow
    disease. The Agriculture [Agribusiness] Department tests
    less than 1 percent of slaughtered cows for the disease,
    which can be fatal to humans who eat tainted beef. But
    Kansas-based Creekstone Farms Premium Beef wants to test
    all of its cows. Larger meat companies feared that move
    because, if Creekstone tested its meat and advertised it
    as safe, they might have to perform the expensive test,
    too. U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in March
    that such tests must be allowed. The ruling was to take
    effect June 1, but the Agriculture Department said Tuesday
    it would appeal — effectively delaying the testing until
    the court challenge plays out. [US taxpayers fund
    Agribusiness Department’s efforts to make our food less
    safe. One can only hope that Bush and Cheney Halliburton
    eat a *bad burger.*]


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