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9 April 2005
Earliest evidence of domestic herding in the Negev

Although layers of dung accumulated by herds of sheep and goat sheltering in the caves of the Near East have long been an annoyance for archaeologists working on the prehistoric remains that lie beneath them, these layers in fact provide a rich source of new data on ancient shepherds and their environment. New research in the Negev Desert, Israel, reveals the archaeological potential of ancient desert dung that documents, among other things, the earliest direct evidence for the infiltration of domestic herd animals into the desert at around 5000 BCE, and the presence of shepherds at different times in history.
     Test excavations at five rock shelters in the central Negev by a joint team from the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ben-Gurion University, the Ramon Science Center, and the Israel Antiquities Authority uncovered their use by shepherds and their flocks repeatedly over the course of the past 7000 years. The dung was easily identifiable as that of sheep or goat by comparison to the dung of modern Bedouin flocks still present in the region, and differs from that of other animals like gazelle, hyrax, onager, and even ibex. The dung has preserved in the arid climate of the Negev, especially well protected from the elements. The preservation of the organic matter provided ideal material for radiocarbon (C14) dating, essential in light of the fact the lone shepherds with their flocks carry little in the way of identifiable material culture.
     The record of the radiocarbon sequence provides a history of shepherding in the desert, which combines with the fluctuating presence of larger camps and settlements, providing a complex view of changing settlement in the arid zone. Further research on these remains will also provide the details of ancient environments, providing perspective on how early pastoral nomads adapted to the desert.

Source: EurekAlert! (6 April 2005)

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