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Early Neolithic mountain settlers used complex farming methods

A new study has upended long-held views on the economic practices of the first high mountain settlers during the Early Neolithic period, approximately 6,500 to 7,500 years ago. 

Traditional assumptions had limited these ancient communities to seasonal occupancy and a heavy reliance on wild resources, particularly focusing on the role of sheep and goat transhumance. However, a study now reveals a broader spectrum of livestock activities in these regions.

Early Neolithic livestock practices 

A collaborative effort by experts from the Archaeozoology Laboratory and High Mountain Archaeology Group at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), the University of Évora (HERCULES Laboratory), the Milà i Fontanals Institution-CSIC, and the General Directorate of Cultural Heritage of the Government of Aragon has shed light on the livestock practices of the Early Neolithic era. 

Focus of the study 

Focusing on the archaeological site of Coro Trasito in Sobrarbe, Aragon, this study is the first of its kind to characterize the feeding strategies and management of domesticated animals in high mountain environments.

The research team used a novel approach, combining stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis in bone collagen with archaeozoological analysis. This technique allowed them to assess animal ecology, management strategies, and feeding practices of the earliest societies in these regions, situated over 1,500 meters above sea level. 

Key findings

The findings challenge previous assumptions, demonstrating varied management and feeding strategies among different flocks.

Contrary to the previous belief that these high mountain settlers relied primarily on wild resources, the study reveals a small but diverse collection of domesticated animals, including cows, goats, sheep, and pigs (Bos taurus, Capra hircus, Ovis aries, and Sus domesticus). 

These animals were mainly used for meat and milk production, highlighting a nuanced approach to livestock rearing. Notably, the researchers discovered a significant rise in the economic importance of pigs (Sus domesticus) during this period.

Feeding management practices

Furthermore, the team found evidence of different feeding management practices, including the use of varied pastures and possibly surplus agricultural products. 

These findings indicate that livestock practices at the Coro Trasito site were well-established and intricately linked to agricultural practices from the onset of the Neolithic era. The study also reveals how these flocks were adapted to the environmental conditions of their surroundings.

Broader economic system 

The results of the archaeozoological, isotopic and archaeological analyses reveal that the inhabitants of the Coro Trasito cave made use mainly of domestic resources, noted the researchers.

“Furthermore, the presence of transformation activities related to dairy and fat products, and the existence of storage structures within the cave indicates the complexity of neolithisation processes in the central Pyrenees and how these areas were quickly integrated into a broader economic system.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Archaeology.

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