An investigation reveals, for the first time and in an integrated way, how the first herds of domestic sheep In the Iberic Peninsule. The results of this work, coordinated by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), constitute the first reference on the modification of the seasonal rhythms of reproduction of sheep in order to adapt them to human needs.
The project integrates technical approaches based on the analysis of stable isotopes and the dental micro wear of archaeological fauna remains of more than 7500 years old, recovered in the Neolithic site of the Chaves cave (Huesca), located in the central Pyrenees area. The research also has the participation of researchers from the University of Zaragoza, the Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).
The alteration of the seasonal rhythms of reproduction of cattle was a great milestone for prehistoric societies, by making it possible to obtain meat and milk throughout the year
The alteration of the seasonal rhythms of cattle reproduction was a great milestone for prehistoric societies, as it made it possible to obtain meat and milk throughout the year. This aspect, which had important implications in the food, economy and social organization of the first agricultural communities. It laid the foundations for the livestock strategies that have lasted until today.
“Until relatively recently, the neolithic livestock as incipient, although the new analytical possibilities based on biogeochemistry that have been applied in this work have made it possible to contrast the practice of fully consolidated livestock strategies since the initial moments of the Neolithic period ”, he comments Maria Saña, Professor in the Department of Prehistory at the UAB and coordinator of the project that publishes the Journal Archaeological Science: Reports.
Sheep is a species that was not domesticated in the Iberian Peninsula. Its agriotype, Ovis orientalis, is located in the eastern Levante area. “What is surprising is the speed with which it is integrated into the livestock strategy and its great economic importance in the early Neolithic times. This is a fast and successful adoption, which shows that the adaptation mechanisms both the new environment and its new economic function were well known and controlled by human communities, “he says. Alejandro Sierra, researcher at the UAB and the University of Zaragoza, first author of the article.
The selective pressures applied on the species, now artificial, pursued specific objectives and were well defined in advance
The selective pressures applied on the species, now artificial, pursued specific objectives and were well defined in advance. This new evidence implies an important turning point in research on animal domestication and the origins of livestock. “This has been possible thanks to the new approach followed in this work, focused on exploring the changes in the reproductive and feeding regimes of these first herds,” adds Sierra.
Cueva de Chaves, an archaeological site more than 7,500 years old
The Chaves cave, an exceptional site
The research has focused on the study of the livestock management of the sheep in the Neolithic cave of Chaves in the Aragonese Pre-Pyrenees. “A spectacular site due to the quality and number of remains recovered. In the fauna of the Neolithic levels, its 12,754 recognizable remains, at least triple those found in other Neolithic sites on the Peninsula, with sheep and domestic goats as the most numerous species”, it states Pilar Utrilla, professor at the University of Zaragoza and director of archaeological interventions.
The results obtained for the Chaves deposit show that in the Iberian Peninsula the births of sheep also occurred in the autumn and winter seasons, which is considered today as a farrowing “out of optimum season”. This aspect contrasts significantly with the livestock regimes documented in other regions of Europe during the Neolithic, with births mainly in spring.
The modification of the natural cycle of births of the wild sheep affected the physiology of the animals of this species, prolonging their fertile period. It was the result of a more intense and continuous human control, altering the interactions between females and males, a breeding strategy that pursued greater predictability in livestock production.
The modification of the natural cycle of births of the wild sheep affected the physiology of the animals of this species, prolonging their fertile period.
“Autumn calving during the ancient Neolithic in the Chaves cave would confirm the antiquity of this practice in the western Mediterranean basin, implying the combination of the biological capacity of the sheep, the zootechnical knowledge of the farmers and the favorable environmental conditions”, he says. Marie balasse, researcher at the Natural History Museum in Paris.
The study also shows that this greater control and human selective pressure also influenced the feeding and mobility patterns of the species. The microwear results show that Neolithic sheep had a more controlled feeding than that of wild animals that lived in the same environment and that fed in environments with good plant cover, which would have hardly yet suffered human impact.
The sheep would graze in the vicinity of the cave for most of the year, probably also being fed forage. The finding of the extraordinary forage contribution is also a novelty. “The results on the diet of the Cueva de Chaves sheep are surprising compared to what we were expecting, documenting regimes with a tendency to intensive and differential patterns in the diet between the juvenile and adult animals of the herd, a characteristic that can be related to a close control over livestock production during these initial moments of Neolithic”Declares Florent rivals, ICREA research professor at IPHES.
“The results obtained on the reproduction and diet in the Chaves sheep they are key to the knowledge of the economic systems of the first cattle-raising societies of the Iberian Peninsula. The new methodology applied in this work will undoubtedly become fundamental for the study of animal management in Prehistory ”, concludes Sierra.
Rights: Creative Commons.