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Manure Used As Fertilizer 5,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

July 17, 2013
By: Davis Michaelsen, Pro Farmer Inputs Monitor Editor

cliffs end farm skeleton of an old man 1 lArchaeologists and researchers have long believed that animal husbandry and grain farming evolved separately. But new findings suggest this may not have been the case. In fact, early farmers may have uncovered the benefits of manure as fertilizer 5,000 years earlier than was once thought.

Subsistence farming and hand-to-mouth cropping are where farming started. A single family on a small plot of land harvesting vegetables, legumes and other grains to feed themselves. Common knowledge had it that livestock and grain operations developed separately in Europe and the Near East somewhere around 3,000 years ago.

When archaeologists date ancient items, they use carbon 14 dating. It has since been found that manure possesses a high proportion of the rare N 15 isotope, making it possible to look for evidence of manure fertilizer in ancient grains collected from archaic farming sites across Europe. Amy Bogaard, a researcher from Oxford in the U.K reports finding evidence of elevated N 15 isotopes in 124 crop samples at 13 different European sites suggesting the presence of manure fertilizer within the soil profile at the time the grains were produced.

These sites, however date back to 8,000 years ago, 5,000 years before prior estimates. The implication is that sedentary farming began at that point and as early farmers learned the benefits of manure, ideas of stratified society and land ownership began to develop in earnest. Growers became more conscious of the positive impact of manure on crop production, and more possessive of their plots. This new attitude of ownership would have been enough to lay the foundation for the advent of cities and towns, and the increased grain production moved subsistence farming to community based agricultural systems.

The thought is that early growers must have noticed increased plant growth in areas where animals gathered and left concentrations of dung. It may seem like a cinch to us today, but placing excrement alongside seed for food likely seemed very counterintuitive -- the nieghbors must have thought that guy was crazy! But as the soil grew richer over several years of application, the benefits of manure as fertilizer would have become more clear with each cropping season.

As growers realized the benefits of animal manure to crops, a greater focus on integrating the two would have emerged quickly, and leaves one to wonder at the circle created by animals fed to produce manure to feed crops to feed the humans. In this way, one can see how notions that animal husbandry and cereal grain developed together, not separately.

As increased grain and livestock production made better meals, the added nutritional benefits would have kicked in in just a few short generations, and that is where modern society really took off. It could even be suggested that, because of nutritional improvements and expertise with animals and the soil, 8,000 years ago is when farmers emerged as some of the smartest, most productive members of society. These improvements in nutrition and general health carry through to today, and as the modern farmer looks back at the roots of fertilizer use, it is no stretch to say that intentional agriculture is where modern society took root in Europe, 8,000 years ago.


 Photo credit: Wessex Archaeology / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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