Prehistoric Cattle Go Wild

22 November 2005 (All day)

Jason Quinlan / Catalhoyuk Research Project

Cattle horns and skull embedded in the mudbrick walls of a Çatalhöyük house.

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.

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