How we discovered that Europeans used cattle 8,000 years ago


Oxen on their way to work by Constant Troyon, Barbizon school, 1855. PHOTO/Wikimedia

The use of animals for their renewable products greatly increased human capabilities in prehistory. Secondary products – or anything that can be gleaned from a domestic animal repeatedly over its lifetime – expanded the capabilities of ancient human societies. They helped to provide enough food and labour surplus to make possible the first ancient civilisations. Apart from their meat, bones and skin, animals gave ancient people vital goods such as their milk and wool. The ability to repeatedly harvest milk from an animal over its lifetime more than doubled the calories that it could contribute to the human diet. The ability to harvest wool from sheep allowed humans to grow a source of meat as well as warm and durable clothing. At some point in prehistory, humans learned that domesticated cattle could pull burdens far greater than humans alone could manage. 

Even after decades of archaeological research, the specific origins of these developments in the management of domesticated animals are not well understood. Studies of the patterns of slaughter of domestic animals according to their age and sex, combined with chemical analyses of the residues left inside ancient pottery vessels, suggest that the consumption of dairy products from sheep, goats and cattle likely dates back into the Neolithic period – at least 8,000 years ago in Europe (c6000 BCE) and earlier in the Near East. The origins of woolly sheep are less well-known. Wild sheep do not have woolly coats, which developed at some point following their domestication. Very few examples of preserved woollen textiles survive for millennia, so the exact date of their production from sheep remains difficult to establish. However, studies of the management of domesticated sheep in prehistory and of artefacts used in the spinning and weaving of textiles suggest that wool was developed in some regions (such as the Near East) by at least 5,000 or 6,000 years ago.

The precise origins of cattle as engines of labour – known as traction – is also murky. In the past, investigators traditionally looked for evidence of items pulled – primarily (but not only) wagons and ploughs. Wagons – known from preserved images such as figurines and rock art – have existed for more than 5,000 years. Early ploughs, such as the ard or scratch plough, were made of wood, and do not preserve well over thousands of years. The oldest known evidence of ploughs in Europe comes from fragments of ards preserved in water-logged ancient sites. They are just under 6,000 years old. Though not nearly as effective as modern machines, early ploughs would have been far faster and easier than having to break compacted earth in fields with hand tools in order to plant crops. They allowed people to plant more crops using less labour, increasing the amount of food that could be grown each year. 

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