The evolution of the dazzling variety of life on the African savannah has been helped along by Neolithic cattle dung, scientists have found.
Nutrients in the soil deposited by livestock manure thousands of years ago in Eastern Africa began an ongoing natural cycle that allow the region’s species to thrive today.
After the ancient homesteads were abandoned, nutrients that leaked into the soil supported a diverse range of plantlife in the region, which attracted wildlife.
Herders then re-inhabited these locations as they provided a rich variety of animals to hunt and grassland on which to raise livestock – restarting the cycle.
Researchers say patches of land in East Africa that continue to attract more wildlife than others today were once Neolithic dung piles.
They claim the study shows how cultural practices and movements of ancient herders are still influencing a range of seemingly wild and natural phenomena.
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This image shows the nutrient cycle that led to some of Africa’s most diverse wild regions. Some of Africa’s most biologically diverse wildlife hotspots can trace their origins to a cycle of soil enrichment that begins with dung deposited in the livestock corrals of ancient herdsmen
‘Many of the iconic wild African landscapes, like the Mara Serengeti, have been shaped by the activities of prehistoric herders over the last 3,000 years,’ said anthropologist Fiona Marshall, a professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri and a senior author of the study.
‘Our research shows that the positive impacts of increased soil fertility in herder settlement corrals can last for thousands of years.
‘The longevity of these nutrient hotspots demonstrates the surprising long-term legacy of ancient herders whose cattle, goats and sheep helped enrich and diversify the vast savannah landscapes of Africa over three millennia.
‘Ecologists have suggested that wildlife movements, including the Serengeti’s famous wildebeest migrations, may be influenced by the location of nutrient-rich soil patches that green rapidly during the rains.
‘Our research suggests that some of these patches may be the result of prehistoric pastoral settlement in African savannahs.’
The study provides an explanation for how oval-shaped wildlife hotspots in Kenya that measure about 300 feet (100 meters) in diameter evolved.
The team used a series of images garnered from satellite imaging and detailed analyses of soil nutrients, isotopes and spatial characteristics at ancient Neolithic herder sites in East Africa,
Other research has previously shown that fire, termite mounds and volcanic sediments may contribute to the varying fertility of savannah soils as well.
This study, the authors claim, confirms that ancient livestock dung has been an important catalyst in an ongoing cycle of soil enrichment.
This study examined five Neolithic sites that range from 1,550-3,700 years old.
It found dung deposits dating back up to 3,000 years.
Open grassy areas with a flush of fresh green grass mark the site of ancient livestock corrals in southwest Kenya (pictured)
These ancient pastoral sites had elevated levels of phosphorous, magnesium, calcium and other nutrients essential for plant and animal growth.
Excavations show that the abandoned settlement footprints are loosely defined by a visually distinct, fine-grained layer of grey sediment, now located about a half-meter below the surface and up to a foot thick in places.
Over the millennia, the fertility of these ancient settlement sites has increased the spatial and biological diversity of savannahs.
For 2,000-3,000 years the African plains of southwestern Kenya were occupied by groups of nomadic herders who moved their camps often in search of greener pastures.
Cattle corrals, such as this one in a modern Maasai homestead in Kenya, have been used for thousands of years to provide overnight protection to cattle and other livestock. The dung build up then adds nutrients to the soil and makes it more fertile
Their livestock freely grazed the land by day were herded into small, oval-shaped paddocks at night for protection from predators.
Manure consequently piled up in the temporary housing units and provided much needed nutrients to the barren soil.
Scarce nutrients from surrounding grasslands also began to accumulate as a result and this created fertility hotspots.
The thriving land then became a focal point for both wild and domesticated animals for years to come.
The findings were published in the journal Nature.
WHY AND HOW DID NEOLITHIC TRIBES GO TO WAR?
Evidence for warring Neolithic tribes is apparent in ancient remains that show marks indicative of axe, club and arrow wounds.
While the origins of wounds like cracked ribs are often difficult to determine, researchers suggest the patterns of some cracked Neolithic skulls show clear evidence of trauma caused by a weapon.
Tese signs of violent assault are apparent in humans remains throughout Europe, including Britain.
A number of healed head injuries found on British remains were seemingly inflicted with blunt, club-like implements.
Researchers speculate that unhealed fractures inflicted very close to the time of death are consistent with a mixture of sharp-force and blunt-force trauma, possibly inflicted with stone axes.
Neolithic tribes likely warred over territory as well as resources like food and shelter.