Zebu: Harbingers of Doom in Bronze Age Western Asia?
Matthews, Roger, Antiquity
Collapse and climate in the Bronze Age
A major area of study in recent years has been that of the collapse of complex human societies (Tainter 1988). In parallel with issues of the rise of civilization and the growth of complex states, there has been a developing interest in their decline and fall, especially as correlated against episodes of climatic change (Butzer 1995). Few areas of the world offer such rich, varied and chronologically deep material on this topic as western Asia.
Throughout the late prehistory and early history of western Asia long periods of relative stability, in gross terms, were punctuated by short, sharp episodes of disruption and change. Three major phases of massive and widespread cultural disruption appear to have occurred. These episodes took place at the start, in the middle and at the close of the Bronze Age, that is at approximately 3000, 2200 and 1200 BC. In each case there is persuasive, although not universally accepted, evidence for the collapse of Bronze Age societies. The first of these punctuations is attested in the collapse of the `Uruk world system' at the very transition of the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages (Algaze 1993). At this time, the end of the 4th millennium, there is evidence for a sharp curtailment of the previously broad spread of south Mesopotamian cultural influence and for substantial social and political upheaval across vast areas.
At the end of the Early Bronze Age, in the late 3rd millennium, well-established empires and civilizations fell apart and died. In Mesopotamia, the empire of Akkad shrank rapidy from its greatest spread to an embattled and short-lived core in the south. Large-scale settlement upheavals and social collapse are attested by archaeological evidence from much of the Mediterranean world and beyond, including the Iberian Peninsula, Greece and the Aegean, the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley (Peltenburg 2000; Weiss 2000; Weiss & Bradley 2001). Effects of this dramatic episode appear to linger on for a period of a millennium or more in marginal regions most sensitive to climatic fluctuations, such as the western Habur River area of north Syria, completely abandoned by permanent settlement through the later 3rd and all of the 2nd millennia BC (Hole 1997).
A thousand years later, at the end of the Late Bronze Age around 1200 BC, a comparable scale of social and state collapse is attested by archaeological and historical evidence from an equally broad geographical range (Neumann & Parpola 1987; Ward & Joukowsky 1992). In Anatolia the Hittite empire came to a sudden end, and there is convincing evidence for widespread disruption across much of the Mediterranean world.
Many scholars believe that climatic factors were heavily implicated in the timing and nature of these vast and complex processes. Based on examination of climatic evidence from a range of sources, Butzer has underlined the importance of three `incisive episodes of major ecological significance, perceptible to some degree or other throughout the Near East', occurring at approximately 3000, 2200 and 1300 BC (Butzer 1995: 136-8). In environmental terms, the single major element of these devastating episodes, called `dry shifts' by Butzer, is a substantial decrease in precipitation, as attested by fluctuations in the water levels of Lake Van (east Anatolia) and Lake Zeribar (west Iran), and in oak-pollen records obtained from sediment sequences from these two lakes (Butzer 1995: figure 2). In addition, evidence from deep-sea sediments from such widely separated locations as the North Atlantic (deMenocal 2001) and the Gulf of Oman (Cullen et al. 2000) reinforces the picture of regular and protracted episodes of excessively cool and dry climate in the Bronze Age, putatively caused by fluctuations in solar irradiance and volcanism (deMenocal 2001: 668). The Gulf of Oman evidence, in particular, shows an abrupt increase in wind-borne dust of Mesopotamian origin lasting for a period of 300 years from about 2300 BC (Cullen et al. 2000: 379). In short, aridification appears to have been involved in all three of the Bronze Age mega-collapses.
Although our interest naturally focuses on the human and societal implications of major climatic shifts, plant and animal communities are as likely to be affected by even subtle and small alterations in prevailing climatic regimes. Major alterations in the structure and components of plant and animal communities may rapidly ensue from climatic changes.
In this article I wish to discuss the evidence concerning a single animal subspecies which, due to its special characteristics, may be a uniquely sensitive marker of climatic variation in general, and aridification in particular: the zebu cow, Bos indicus. Although not a distinct animal species, as it is capable of fruitfully interbreeding with common cattle, Bos taurus, it is, however, a very distinct subspecies, characterized by a substantial hump on its anterior back and a marked dewlap, or flap of skin along its throat, amongst other attributes.
Zebu--the nature of the beast
Zebu or humped cattle are hardy creatures with metabolic rates well below that of non-humped or taurine cattle. They have larger and more efficient sweat glands and are more resistant than taurine cattle to tick-borne diseases and gastro-intestinal parasites (Epstein 1971: 523-5; Epstein & Mason 1984). Zebu are better able to withstand high temperatures and water shortages, and can survive on marginal browsing of coarse vegetation not acceptable to taurine cattle (Meadow 1984). The zebu's hump, which comprises mainly muscle and connective tissue, may have evolved, or become accentuated, by human-directed artificial selection, as in the case of the fat tail and rump of certain breeds of sheep (Epstein 1971: 328). In terms of morphology, zebu have long legs and narrow bodies with a slender skeleton and skull (Grigson 1980). In most cases, but not all, their thoracic vertebrae have distinctive bifid spinous processes (Epstein 1971: 198, figures 203-4), presumably in order to support the weight of the hump.
In concert with their morphological and physiological properties, zebu are tough and reliable working animals (FIGURES 1, 2). A pair of zebu can haul up to 900 kg by cart over rough roads, double that amount with pneumatic tires over paved roads, covering 40 km in 10 hours. Their possible uses are manifold, including ploughing, harrowing, threshing, transport, water-drawing and many other domestic or agricultural tasks (Joshi & Phillips 1953). They are also good providers of milk and beef. Where zebu have been introduced to areas with existing taurine cattle types, such as north and east Africa following Arab migrations there from the 7th century AD onwards, they have succeeded in genetically absorbing and superseding older, long-established breeds (Epstein 1971: 340; MacHugh et al. 1998: 136).
[FIGURES 1-2 OMITTED]
An A to Z of zebu history--distribution and chronology
Recent studies in cattle DNA have shone new light on the question of zebu origins and their relation to the early development of taurine cattle (MacHugh et al. 1998). Previously there had been two main schools of thought, one holding that all domesticated cattle stemmed from a single wild ancestor, the aurochs, in the Neolithic period, and that humped cattle then evolved as a distinct subspecies from that same stock (Epstein 1971). The second school believes that zebu evolved independently of taurine cattle from a separate wild ancestor, Bos namadicus (Zeuner 1963: 239; Meadow 1984: 329; Badam 1984: 341). Principal components analysis of microsatellite DNA variation in 20 modern cattle populations in Africa, Asia and Europe shows strong divergences between Bos indicus and Bos taurus samples, suggesting a lapse of at least 600,000 years since the existence of a common ancestor for these two subspecies (MacHugh et al. 1998: 137). It therefore appears that throughout the Holocene, at least, zebu have evolved separately from taurine cattle, and that a common ancestor lies far back in the past, long before domestication.
It is hoped that future DNA studies, this time on archaeological remains, may help to answer the question of whether the early domesticated cattle of India and Pakistan are zebu or taurine (MacHugh et al. 1998: 142). In the Ganges river area of north India large quantities of bones, putatively from Bos indicus, have been recovered from the Mesolithic site of Sarai-Nahar-Rai, dated to around 8000 BC, and there is a suggestion that some of the bones are from domesticated zebu (Allchin & Allchin 1982: 77). More convincing evidence comes from sites in Baluchistan, modern Pakistan, with morphologically attested domestication of zebu at the site of Mehrgarh by 6000 BC (Meadow 1984; Rissman 1989: 17), and at Rana Gundai in the 5th-4th millennia BC (Allchin & Allchin 1982: 101). Large-scale, long-term herding and perhaps taming of zebu herds appear to be attested by the so-called `ash-mound' Neolithic sites of south-central India, such as Utnur (Allchin & Allchin 1982: 123).
Within the context of ancient western Asia there are three categories of evidence which bear on the issue of zebu;
1 depictions on seals, plaques or painted pots;
3 faunal remains.
While the recovery of relevant faunal remains uniquely gives some assurance that zebu were present in a particular locality at a particular time, the recovery of zebu figurines, unlikely to be highly mobile objects per se, is a strong indicator of their presence. Recovery of seals and pots disporting zebu motifs, however, does not necessitate the proximity of actual zebu to the findspot.
Uncertain early occurrences of zebu depictions in Mesopotamia include a highly dubious figurine from Arpachiyah near Mosul in north Iraq, of 5th-millennium date (Mallowan & Rose 1935: figure 48:14), depictions on seals from Nineveh of about 3000 BC (Zeuner 1963: 239), a clay tablet from Larsa with seal impression showing a zebu (Epstein 1971: 508), and a marble amulet from Ur in the form of a zebu (Hornblower 1927), both the Larsa and Ur items perhaps dating to around 3000 BC. At about the same time, late 4th millennium, representations of zebu are found as figurines and painted pottery motifs at Susa in southwest Iran (Epstein 1971: 508; Zeuner 1963: 239). These often questionable occurrences suggest that zebu may have been familiar beasts to some of the inhabitants of south Mesopotamia by 3000 BC, although their physical presence there has yet to be confirmed by the scant archaeozoological evidence. Significantly, zebu are not so far attested in any form, artistic rendering or faunal remains, in regions to the west or north of Mesopotamia before 2000 BC.
From 2500 BC onwards there are increasing representations of zebu in the form of figurines and motifs on seals and painted pottery in the material culture of the Indus valley and beyond, at sites such as Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, as well as the Quetta-Pishin valley and the Makran coast of Baluchistan (Epstein & Mason 1984: 15; Zeuner 1963: 236). From here zebu probably reached Oman and the head of the Persian Gulf (Potts 1997: 257), and spread to the world-view of south Mesopotamia by the 3rd millennium BC. A stone bowl sherd, of mid 3rd-millennium date, from Tell Agrab in the Diyala region northeast of Baghdad, shows an impressive zebu bull (Zeuner 1963: 217), and a well-executed sketch of a zebu head and shoulder is preserved on a clay tablet of later 3rd-millennium date from Tell Asmar, also in the Diyala region (Frankfort 1934: figure 18). In Iranian Seistan zebu bones and figurines are attested in great quantities at the site of Shahr-i Sokhta in the period c. 2900-2500 BC (Ports 1997: 255), while later, questionable, examples occur at Anau in Turkmenistan (Pumpelly 1908: plate 47:4).
As to north Mesopotamia, a well-shaped and painted example of a zebu bull from level IV at Tepe Gawra (FIGURE 3:1) dates probably to the mid 2nd millennium BC but may be earlier (Speiser 1935: plate 77:5). Also in north Mesopotamia, zebu are attested at Tell Brak in the form of figurines (FIGURES 3:2, 4) and bifurcate vertebrae (FIGURE 5) from levels dating to 1700-1600 BC (Matthews 1995: 98-9), as well as figurines from mid 2nd-millennium levels (McDonald 1997: 131) (FIGURES 3:3-4). Perhaps significantly, zebu are not depicted in the glyptic art of Brak in the 3rd millennium, a rich source of depictions of domesticated and wild animals (Matthews et al. 1994), nor are they depicted on the elaborately painted ceramics of highland Anatolia and the Caucasus of the early 2nd millennium which host depictions of many other animals (Ozfirat 2001). Approximately contemporary with the Brak zebu evidence, at around 1700 BC, is a fine example of a figurine from the nearby site of Chagar Bazar, sporting a painted representation of what may be a harness (Mallowan 1937: figure 10:30). From Beydar, to the northwest of Tell Brak, comes an ivory furniture inlay with zebu in relief, dated to 1400 BC (Bretschneider 2000: 65) and a plain zebu figurine comes from mid 2nd-millennium BC levels at Tall Hamad Aga in north Iraq (Spanos 1988: Abb 18:2). An early 2nd-millennium context at Ishchali in the Diyala region yielded a fine clay plaque depicting a bull zebu ridden by a man who grasps the animal's hump in one hand while inserting his knees under a simple belt around the its waist (Frankfort 1954: plate 59:c).
[FIGURES 3-5 OMITTED]
A fragmentary zebu figurine comes from late 2nd-millennium levels at Tell Sabi Abyad in northwest Mesopotamia (Akkermans 1993:31, figure 23:85). Large quantities of zebu figurines, varying in their degree of elaboration, have been found in Late Bronze Age deposits at Tell Munbaqa in north Syria (Machule et al. 1986; 1990; Czichon & Werner 1998: Taf 80-5) (FIGURE 3:5). There are also zebu figurines from the Late Bronze Age site of Meskene-Emar on the north Syrian Euphrates not far from Munbaqa (Beyer 1982: 104) (FIGURE 3:6), from mid 2nd-millennium BC period II at Umm el-Marra west of the Syrian Euphrates (Curvers & Schwartz 1997: figure 21) and from level VII of Alalakh in northwest Syria, dated to early/mid 2nd millennium (Woolley 1955: plate 57:a). Cylinder seals of 13th-century BC date from Upper Mesopotamia depict humped cattle pulling ploughs (Wiggermann 2000: figure 7) and there is a zebu pendant of 13th-century BC date from Assur on the Tigris in north-central Iraq (Boehmer 1972: 168, Abb 51). Zebu figurines appear in level 3A of Haradum on the Iraqi Euphrates, dated to the mid 17th century BC (Kepinski-Lecomte 1992: figure 159:6-7). On a Kassite seal from Mesopotamia, dated to c. 1500 BC, zebu are depicted drawing ploughs (Epstein 1971: 515).
A study of cattle astragali from archaeological sites of western Asia has detected the gradual development of distinctive cattle breeds throughout the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, followed by an episode of rapid change at the end of the 2nd millennium, that is at the end of the Late Bronze Age (Buitenhuis 1984: 216). Buitenhuis connects this episode with the large-scale introduction of zebu into western Asia at this time, leading to cross-breeding of taurine and zebu stock (Buitenhuis 1984: 216). As we have seen above, it is possible that zebu had already been introduced to Mesopotamia by the mid 3rd millennium BC, but it seems that their spread into Syria and the Levant did not occur until the mid-later 2nd millennium.
The earliest occurrences of zebu evidence from the Levant come in the form of bifurcated vertebrae from Late Bronze Age, c. 1400-1200 BC, and Early Iron Age, c. 1000 BC, levels of Deir' Alla in the Jordan valley (Clason 1978: figure 2; Clason & Buitenhuis 1998: 239). Zebu figurines and vertebrae occur in Late Bronze Age levels at Tell Jemmeh in the north Negev of Israel (Hesse 1997: 442), and figurines come from Late Bronze Age Tell el-Ajjul (Miller 1999: 96). In Egypt zebu are commonly depicted from the time of the XVIIIth dynasty onwards, c. 1570 BC (Zeuner 1963: 226, 239-40), although earlier portrayals occur in tombs at Beni Hasan, Amarna and Thebes (Epstein 1971: 505). The occurrence of zebu depictions in Egypt earlier than in the Levant may argue for movement of zebu through two diverging routes to these two regions, or may simply be an indication of the comparative wealth of pictorial depiction in Egypt as compared to the Levant.
Moving into Anatolia, zebu are so far attested solely as figurine representations and only from the late 2nd millennium onwards. A couple of basic figurines were found in imperial Hittite levels, c. 1400-1200 BC, at Alishar (von der Osten 1937: figures 239:d1241, d2475), and from the same period at Alaca Hoyuk (Kosay & Akok 1966: plate 25:i256), both in north-central Anatolia. A silver pendant from imperial Hittite levels at Bogazkoy-Hattusa (Boehmer 1972: no. 1759) and an unprovenanced zebu figure from somewhere in Cappadocia (Dupre 1993: plate 12:126) also come from north and central Anatolia. At Geven Gedigi near the important Hittite site of Kusakli in east-central Anatolia, a surface collection of zoomorphic figurines includes four representations of zebu (FIGURE 3:7), dated by associated pottery to the Iron Age and perhaps also Late Bronze Age (Miller 1999).
The above account is by no means exhaustive but the general outlines are clear. In sum, the earliest occurrences of zebu, in domesticated form, are found in early Neolithic contexts of Baluchistan, culminating over time in their frequent depiction in the art of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Zebu are attested, directly or indirectly, by the early 3rd millennium in east Iran, by the mid 3rd millennium BC in south Mesopotamia, through the mid-late 2nd millennium in north Mesopotamia, by the mid-late 2nd millennium in the Levant and Egypt, and by the later 2nd millennium and into the early 1st millennium in Anatolia. What might be the significance of this distributional chronology?
Cattle at the edge of disaster?
It is hoped that future researches will considerably amplify the data-base on the topic of zebu in western Asia, especially by the identification of zebu bones in archaeozoological collections. We can be sure that the evidence summarized above is only a tiny proportion of the actual zebu representation in western Asia during the Bronze Age. As one commentator has put it, `since only a few skeletal characteristics permit its identification in archaeological debris, the animal [zebu] may have been far more important in early economies than is currently recognised' (Hesse 1995: 214). On the basis of the evidence summarised above I wish to propose, as a working hypothesis, that the spread of zebu in Bronze Age western Asia is associated with episodes of climate change involving aridification. From independent evidence, including the Van and Zeribar sediment cores, we know of the occurrence of major arid phases at c. 3000, 2200 and 1300 BC (Butzer 1995: 136-8). We also know that zebu are superbly adapted to thrive in dry and tough conditions which taurine cattle would find intolerable. In the archaeological record from Bronze Age western Asia, summarized above, we have seen how the evidence for zebu, in the form of bones, figurines and depictions, forms a distinct chronological and geographical pattern.
The earliest western Asia attestations, often of debatable reliability, concentrate in the very late 4th-early 3rd millennia BC in south Mesopotamia, featuring depictions of zebu in a range of media, including figurines and glyptic art, from sites such as Ur, Larsa and Susa, as well as Nineveh in the north. Chronologically this cluster follows the collapse of the Uruk world system at the start of the Bronze Age. Attestations of zebu at the Diyala sites of central Mesopotamia by the mid-later 3rd millennium might be connected with the second episode of aridification documented in the Van and Zeribar sediment cores.
There is a sharp increase in zebu evidence from the mid 2nd millennium, with bones and figurines from a wide range of sites in north Mesopotamia and northwest Syria. Their presence in this area correlates well with the large-scale abandonment of the western Habur River region, which is thought to have been climatically stimulated (Hole 1997). By the last centuries of the Late Bronze Age, zebu are attested in the Levant for the first time, at Deir' Alla, Tell Jemmeh and Tell el-Ajjul. It is highly significant that zebu appear for the first time also in central and north Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, at Geven Gedigi, Alaca Hoyuk, Alishar and Bogazkoy-Hattusa. Suggestions of climatic influence in the collapse of the Hittite empire around 1200 BC (Gorny 1989: 91) take on a new significance in light of the appearance of arid-tolerant zebu in north and central Anatolia, the homeland of the Hittites, by the last decades of the Late Bronze Age.
In and around each of the three Bronze Age mega-collapses, then, we can discern, however faintly, the distinctive profile of the zebu cow, steadily expanding its distribution throughout western Asia in concert with episodes of environmental stress involving aridification. No doubt welcomed and encouraged by human communities as a hardy and hard-working beast, which could outperform taurine cattle when the going got tough, a more substantive significance of zebu was to be their role as harbingers of change, generally for the worse. The evidence for zebu in significant quantities in north Mesopotamia and the Levant by the mid 2nd millennium BC, that is at least 200 years before the late 2nd-millennium climate shift attested in the Van and Zeribar cores, might suggest that zebu are more sensitive than oak pollen as indicators of aridification. Or it may be the case that, following modern African parallels (Epstein 1971: 340), once introduced to a region, zebu succeeded in genetically absorbing previously established cattle breeds and in taking over their pasture lands and economic roles within human communities, particularly in areas with marginal rainfall. Zebu may thus have dominated the cattle ecology of north Mesopotamia throughout the 2nd millennium BC and beyond. To address this issue, and many others related to the spread of zebu in western Asia, we need much more information on the representation of zebu in faunal assemblages from excavated sites.
In conclusion, it is hoped that on-going and future studies of faunal and botanical evidence from western Asia will pinpoint and explore other possible indicators of environmental stress and change during the critical centuries of the Bronze Age. One such candidate might be pigs, animals which, unlike zebu, do not thrive in arid conditions and whose distributional chronology, at least in terms of intensity of exploitation, might therefore be expected to show a very different pattern. In addition, textual studies of cattle and other fauna as attested in cuneiform documents of the Mesopotamian (Stol 1995) and Hittite worlds will need to take into consideration the possible occurrence and significance of zebu within the realm of economic and agricultural activities reported on in those often highly detailed sources.
Acknowledgements. My thanks to Dr Roger Moorey, Dr James Conolly and two anonymous referees for helpful comments and input. All errors remain my own.
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ROGER MATTHEWS, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, England. firstname.lastname@example.org
Received 23 January 2001, revised 20 June 2001, accepted 24 September 2001, revised 24 october 2001…
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Publication information: Article title: Zebu: Harbingers of Doom in Bronze Age Western Asia?. Contributors: Matthews, Roger - Author. Journal title: Antiquity. Volume: 76. Issue: 292 Publication date: June 2002. Page number: 438+. © 2008 Antiquity Publications, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.