Theme 2: Domesticated animals in the LBK

Researchers: Alex Bentley (PI), Jean-Denis Vigne (PI), Alan Outram (PI), Roz Gillis (PDRA), Iain Kendall (PhD student), Emily Johnson (PhD student).


Herd of cattle © CSIRO

Herd of cattle © CSIRO

Over the last two decades there has been a paradigm shift in the level of information we can derive from faunal remains – even the life histories of specific animals can now be reconstructed. Our aim is to produce an integrated assessment of animal husbandry and exploitation in the cultural context of the LBK, through the application of a comprehensive, uniform methodology based on state-of-the-art zooarchaeological techniques.

It is often presumed that the transition to domestic animal subsistence was complete and abrupt, especially since domestic species are evident in all regions of the LBK, but it is unclear why wild species, such as boar and deer, continue to be exploited well into the middle LBK, when domestic species are clearly present (Jarman 1972; Jeunesse & Arbogast 1997; Barnard 2007). One hypothesis we will test is that the initial pattern of domestic animal exploitation was largely for meat, representing part of the continuum from full hunted animal exploitation to a farming based economy. Integral to this we will track the evolution of husbandry strategies as farming becomes more widely established, particularly seeking evidence for the intensive utilization of animals for milk(Vigne & Helmer 2007). This zooarchaeological evidence will work synergistically in support of the lipid residue evidence from pottery, and is important in identifying which species was the focus of milk production at different times and regions of the LBK. The project aims to recognise both the emergence of milking practices across different LBK regions and its later intensification. Intensive dairying will surely have affected the economic value placed upon different species of domestic animals. In turn, an intensive reliance on cattle typically brings about a radical transformation in both prehistoric economy and kinship (Cronk 1989; Holden & Mace 2003; Bentley et al. 2009).

Bone fats are almost universally valued in marginal environments as the principal sources of fat, especially by hunter-gatherers who lack a reliable and year-round source of carbohydrates (Outram 2001). Dairying would offer an alternative source of storable fat-rich products, such as butter and cheese. We will test the hypothesis that intensification of dairying would have decreased the need for bone fats.

A previously archaeologically invisible aspect of the development of cattle domestication is the management of pasture and fodder, usually through strategies such as transhumance, herd splitting, or agro-pastoralism with sedentary livestock and over wintering strategies; Gregg 1988). Possibilities now exist to test such ideas extensively, using strontium and oxygen isotopes to reveal the patterns of pasture and fodder use and herding practices for the first time in the LBK, and shed light on how this evolves and changes with increased reliance on dairying. These investigations will be a vital part of testing our hypothesis that dairying-based intensive cattle domestication will gradually increase throughout the LBK, driven by the modelled evolution of the European LP gene variant (Itan et al. 2009), which increases the potential for widespread reliance on milk, and its various products, as a major dietary staple.

Specific objectives

Composite diagram displaying positions and types of butchery and burning surface modifications on cattle from the Middle Bronze Age ritual enclosure of Velim Skalka, Czech Republic (Outram et al. 2005, JAS)

To determine:

(i) herd structures and slaughter profiles for cattle and sheep/goats;

(ii) wild and hunted species compositions at LBK sites;

(iii) δ13C, δ15N, 87Sr/86Sr and δ18O analyses of domesticated animal teeth to define weaning ages, seasonal herd management strategies;

(iv) butchery practices and the nature of meat and fat exploitation;

(v) sources of variation in animal husbandry and exploitation strategies for integration with cultural information for the LBK.

Material and methods

Composite diagram displaying positions and types of butchery and burning surface modifications on cattle from the Middle Bronze Age ritual enclosure of Velim Skalka, Czech Republic (Outram et al. 2005, JAS)

Composite diagram displaying positions and types of butchery and burning surface modifications on cattle from the Middle Bronze Age ritual enclosure of Velim Skalka, Czech Republic (Outram et al. 2005, JAS)

We will apply state-of-the-art approaches to provide comprehensive assessments of the ways LBK farmers managed and exploited their animals for food. The aim is to gain detailed information from at least one assemblage in each of the 13 regions identified within the wider study. In particular, developments in the lowlands and the uplands in subsequent phases of the LBK developments will be carefully scrutinized.

  • Herd structures and husbandry patterns

These will be reconstructed from the collection of evidence relating to animals’ sex and age at death. If animals are husbanded to specifically produce particular products, such and meat, milk or wool, then it is economically rational to cull animals of the different sexes at different ages. There are well established ideal models for such husbandry (Payne 1973; Legge 1981, 2005). Age at death will be assessed through the study of dental eruption and wear, alongside evidence from levels of bone fusion in different elements of the skeleton, taking into account the latest developments in such approaches (Vigne & Helmer 2007; Zeder 2006).

  • Stable isotopes and herd management

We will exploit the incremental growth of bovid teeth to provide time resolved isotopic records. For example, following the work of Balasse & Tresset (2002) the weaning of cattle will be investigated based on serial analyses of δ15N values of tooth dentine (Fig. 8). The pattern of change in δ15N values in the first molar of archaeological bovines suggests that the Neolithic calves were weaned early. This may either be due to a shorter lactation for Neolithic cows, or early weaning imposed by the herder to reserve a bigger proportion of milk production for human consumption. If the latter is the case then a strong correlation should be found with slaughtering profiles and the occurrence of milk fat residues in archaeological pottery.

We will also use δ18O as a proxy for season (Bowen & Wilkinson 2002), and Sr isotopes measured along the growth axis of tooth enamel as a proxy for geological location and hence movement. Strontium profiles vary according to underlying geology, and so reflect the movement of the animal across varying catchments (Bentley & Knipper 2005; Knipper 2011). Variation in herd management strategy will therefore be reflected in isotopic profiles, with both δ18O and 87Sr/86Sr measured made along the same tooth (Balasse et al. 2002). For whole jaws, isotopic sequences from multiple teeth can give a movement history spanning 3 or 4 years.

Given exciting new evidence for differential land access in the LBK, revealed by strontium isotopic signatures in humans  (Bentley et al. 2008; Bentley et al. in review), palaeobotanical remains and pottery (Bogaard et al. 2011), we may recover different transhumant patterns in cattle teeth from different areas of an LBK village. We would compare this to spatial patterns from residue analysis of pottery to test whether specialization of occupations may have already been present by the early Neolithic in Europe (most archaeologists assume specialization emerged later, in the Bronze Age).

  • Butchery and taphonomy

In order to study processing of animal carcasses as a form of material culture, it is possible to create diagrams showing the exact anatomical position and nature of every butchery mark or modification (Outram et al. 2005; Harding et al. 2007). Such diagrams show cultural choices in carcass division, highlighting differences between species or regions. Fracture will be considered alongside fragmentation levels of different skeletal elements to establish extent of bone fat exploitation, as different practices of bone marrow and grease exploitation leave particular patterns of fracture and fragmentation, which can be ranked according to rate of return for effort (Outram 2003, 2004b; Karr et al. 2010). Because bone fat exploitation leaves an enduring and analysable record, it represents the best zooarchaeological method for understanding demand for ‘primary’ animal fats, rather than ‘secondary’ dairy fats.