A brief hiatus……

My apologies dear SIWG members and followers of this blog for the brief hiatus in blog posts. As you can imagine with the opening of borders with the advent of the COVID vaccines, there has been a race to catch up fieldwork and sample collections. As a result, the contributions from researchers have slowed to a halt.

In addition, I will be moving from ICArEHB in Portugal (☹) to a new position in Berlin at the DAI (😊) as their new archaeozoologist. This has meant that I have been focused on finishing academic and personal projects before my family and I move to Berlin in December. I am very sad to be leaving Portugal, but we have built an amazing new isotope preparation lab and I will continue to be providing support to the ICArEHB family in stable isotopes and archaeozoology. But I am also very excited to start at the DAI, and looking forward to building new projects with colleagues in Germany and across the world.

To kick start the new ‘term/semester’, I have been thinking of blog posts about open access databases (IsoArch, ISOBANK and Neotoma), following on from Suzanna Pilaar-Birch’s workshop with the Neotoma database, and discussing the merits of each and which one you should choose; to ensuring good standards of reporting methods and results for transparency. However, I thought I would start the to start with a discussion about landscape reconstruction.

Last week, I published together with my colleagues from Kiel and Belgrade, a paper about the livestock management and land-use during the late Vinča period in Serbia at the incredible sites of Vinča-Belo brdo and Stubline. This study is a part of a large sampling program of bones and teeth from domesticate and wild animals from the two sites. Our first paper concerned the stable isotope results from bone collagen. In this paper, we found a large variability in δ13C/δ15N results in cattle from Vinča-Belo brdo in comparison form cattle from Stubline, who may have been pastured in forested/wetland areas. While sheep and pigs appeared to have been fed similar diets possibly being kept within the settlements. Wild animals, mainly deer and wild pigs, ranged wide habits including forests (figure of results).

The results from stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis of bone collagen samples from Vinča-Belo brdo.
The results from stable carbon and nitrogen isotopic analysis of bone collagen samples from Stubline.

The recently published paper in PLOS-ONE focused on the results from the sequential sampling of bioapatite from cattle, sheep/goat, pig, and deer teeth. Sequential sampling allows an examination of individual life histories, via δ18O/δ13C. The oxygen isotope provides a seasonal framework to examine variation in plant δ13C foliar values. Carbon isotopes can detect different plant types e.g. C3 plants which a predominant plant type found in Serbia. The carbon isotopes of C3 plants are particularly sensitive to changes in their growing conditions 1. Our results echoed the results from the bone collagen analysis but also provided more clarity about the types of pasture that different species may have used and highlighted potential differences in management practices for sheep and cattle.

The variation seen in cattle bone collagen prevailed in the bioapatite samples, with little similarity between individuals (see here). Some individuals were grazed with open environments while others may have been kept for parts of the year in forested/waterlogged environments. Whereas sheep appeared to be managed very similar at both sites with little variation between individuals (see here). What is intriguing is the variation in δ13C from   ̶ 8‰ to   ̶ 14‰, with the depleted values occurring during winter.

We proposed that this variation was in part by plants growing under high temperatures during summer, perhaps within halophyte communities within relic river channels, when one considers the dynamic fluvial landscape of the Danube. During winter, herds may have been kept within the settlements and fed on collected fodder, such as leafy hay from riverine forest environments. Overall, it supports a uniform herding strategy in contrast with that of cattle.

Pasture reconstruction based on study results. The base images were made available on the ‘Nature scenes with fields’ https://www.vecteezy.com/vector-art/605564-nature-scenes-with-fields-and-mountians licensed to REG. The animal silhouettes are available under CC 4.0 from ArcheoZoo.org.

This is one interpretation of the results, and another group of researchers may interpret the data differently, for example Balasse et al. 20172. Balasse et al. (including myself) studied the material from Popină Borduşani along with other Late Neolithic/Eneolithic sites from the Danubian corridor in Romania. Again, bone collagen and enamel bioapatite wild and domesticated animals were analysed providing a multi-faceted view of animal management. Similar enriched carbon isotope values were interpreted as potential the consumption of C4 plants growing as weeds near the settlement.

These studies highlight differences in pasture use and management that may occur in similar environments. To increase our understanding of past herding practices, future studies need carry out comprehensive sampling and analytical programs of wild and domesticated animals from well preserved archaeological sites, where both bone collagen and enamel bioapatite ared analysed. This would allow for greater resolution of past husbandry practices as well as the landscape in which these herds lived and died.

To move forward to create better interpretive frameworks, we need to build detailed databases of carbon and nitrogen, as well as other isotopes, from ecological studies and analysis of local reference material much in the way is crucial for Strontium isotopes studies. We may never be able to say definitively sheep X lived off a diet of turnips in the winter and rich clover meadows during summer. But we can move to increasing the resolution of past herding strategies via improved sampling and multi-isotopic approaches.

1             Tieszen, L. T. Natural variations in the carbon isotope values of plants: Implications for Archaeology, Ecology and Paleoecology. Journal of Archaeological Science 18, 227-248 (1991).

2             Balasse, M. et al. Investigating the scale of herding in Chalcolithic pastoral communities settled along the Danube River in the 5th millennium BC: A case study at Borduşani-Popină and Hârşova-tell (Romania). Quat. Int. 436, 29-40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.07.030 (2017).

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