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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Program in
Human Ecology and Archaeobiology

Research Interests

Zeder’s research interests include the domestication of animals, the social and environmental implications of early agriculture in the ancient Near East, and the development of specialized subsistence economies in early complex societies. She is also interested in the intersection of archaeology and genetics in documenting the domestication of plant and animal species. She has worked in Iran, Israel, Turkey, and most recently in Syria.

Zeder Research Projects

Animal Domestication in the Near East

Animal Domestication in the Near East thumbnail imageAnimal Domestication in the Near East
From Zeder, 2008, PNAS

Research on the origins of animal domestication in the Eastern Fertile Crescent focuses on the study of curated collections of sheep and goat bones from archaeological sites in Iran and Iraq now housed in the Smithsonian and other museums around the world. This research has succeeded in developing a new method for constructing sex-specific harvest profiles that have proven effective in identifying the initial stages of animal management in the archaeological record. Using this technique we have been able to detect clear signs of human management of goat herds at about 10,000 years ago in the highlands of southwestern Iran. It is likely the leading edge of domestication of goats, as well as sheep and pigs occurred somewhat earlier from 11,500-15,000. The research has been instrumental in demonstrating that signs of human management of animals can be detected 100s of years before any morphological changes in the size or shape of skeletal remains. It has been instrumental in changing our understanding of not only the markers of initial domestication in animals, as well as the timing and location of the earliest steps toward animal domestication.

Impact of Agriculture in Northern Mesopotamia

from Bar-Oz, Zeder, and Hole PNAS, 2011

This research examines the impact of the early introduction and intensification of agriculture over a 6000 year period in the Khabur Basin of north eastern Syria. Working with more than 16 different archaeological investigations in this region and collaborating with other archaeologists, archaeobotanists, and paleo-climatologists, this work examines how the environmental and social impact of agriculture from the first introduction of domesticates into the region, around 7500 B.C. through the rise and fall of early urban society, around 3000 B.C. The work completed to date suggests that indigenous wild species survived in the region for more than 3000 years after the beginning of farming and herding in the region. The major environmental impact on indigenous fauna seems to happen after the development of a region-wide agricultural economy servicing emergent urban centers. The work has also shed light on the development of specialized pastoral economy in the region as part of the process of urban emergence. It has also provided the first archaeozoological evidence of the use of desert kites in the mass-killing of gazelle, a practice thought to have contributed to the extirpation of this once dominant wild herd animal from the region.

First Steps toward Animal Domestication in the Taurus/Zagros Arc

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(Photo supplied by Brian Hesse, Pennsylvania State University). ...more

Recent archaeological and genetic research indicates that that by 10,500 years ago at least three livestock species (sheep, goat, and pig) and a number of crop plants had been initially brought under domestication in he Taurus/Zagros Arc, a region that stretches from southeastern Turkey to western Iran. This research examines animal bone assemblages from a number of the small sedentary communities that sprung up in this region at the beginning of the Holocene (12,000-10,5000 BP) that are thought to have given rise to the domestication of these major livestock species. Three related hypothesis are tested: 1) Initial sedentism in the region took place in the context of increased resource opportunity brought about by the stabilization and amelioration of climate in the early Holocene; 2) Sheep, goats, and pigs were domesticated in those parts of the Taurus/Zagros arc where they were most abundant, in order to enhance the security and predictability of resource access in response to localized pressure on resources stemming from sedentism; and 3) Anthropogenic environments created by long term human settlement opened up new niches that were exploited by various species of animals, creating commensal relationships with humans that in certain species led to their domestication (pig, dog, cat).

Detecting Initial Domestication in Sheep and Goats

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from Zeder and Lapham, 2010, JAS, photos Don Hurlbut . Supplemental Figures Link

Detecting the initial steps toward the domestication of sheep and goats has required the development of a number of archaeozoological methods. These include testing and refining methods for distinguishing between these two closely related animals using fragmentary animal bones and teeth; gaining a better understanding of the ages of long bone fusion and tooth eruption and wear in these animals; and developing methods to distinguish between male and female animals. These high resolution analytical techniques make it possible to construct sex specific harvest profiles for sheep and goat that can be used to trace the transition from hunting to herding.


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