Protohistoric to Medieval pastoralism in the Western Alps: The origins and development of long-distance transhumance

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Archaeology


This project will study the development of long-distance pastoral transhumance (the management and movement of animals between lowland to high altitude pasture) in the Western Alps, from the Iron Age to the Medieval Period. Pastoralism rendered previously unproductive land productive by moving animals away from the best arable areas and into areas unsuitable for growing crops. The wealth of many societies and nations was founded upon complex pastoralism. Today, the importance of Alpine (high-altitude) landscapes is internationally recognised - strictly speaking, an "Alp" is a high mountain pasture - a cultural landscape modified and managed in some areas since the Neolithic or Bronze Age. Despite their importance, we know relatively little about the development of the transhumant pastoral system that has faceted these landscapes. Our understanding of what animals were exploited, and for what purpose/s, is also limited. These landscapes contribute to regional and national economies and cultures via the production of meat, cheese, wool, and related by-products. Today, sheep (for meat and dairy products) dominate the southern alpine pastoral system cattle and milk production dominate the northern Alps - it is unlikely that this was always so.
This project will be the first to adopt a regional-scale approach designed to address these issues via a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach. We will integrate archaeological, faunal, palaeoenvironmental archives (including ancient DNA) in the search for the origins of long-distance transhumance in the Alps. This will be achieved through the reconstruction of animal transhumance patterns of Iron Age through to medieval sheep and cattle in the Western Alps and abutting regions. The project will access c. 10 multi-period bone assemblages from lowland and high altitude sites from the region and characterise the composition of flocks and herds in via a range of scientific methods. Using strontium and oxygen isotope measurements, we will identify animal movement for sheep and cattle and make inferences regarding the development of long-distance transhumance. The project will access faunal reports for all of the sites in the region. In parallel to this work, we will core four alpine lakes and study evidence for erosion (via the study of sediments), vegetation change (via the study of pollen and aDNA), in addition, the aDNA will permit the precise identification of the appearance of domesticated animals in our landscapes.
For some time, archaeologists and ancient historians have argued for Roman origins of long-distance transhumance in the Alps; this has never been demonstrated. Therefore, this project will go some way to answering this question. Also, through the inclusion of Medieval bone assemblages in this study, we will be able to compare the results and inferences based on isotope data with evidence provided by historical documents that relate to animal pastoralism and transhumance. Our ability to compare and contrast the isotope results with written archives will be of interest to archaeologists applying isotope studies in all periods.
The applications and benefits of this project are many. The benefits for academics lie with the development of detailed knowledge regarding the relative impact of pastoral activities on the landscape and a clear assessment of the relationship between societal changes and new forms of pastoral activity. The results will elucidate the evolution of one of Europe's keystone landscape types and associated economic practices. We will be working in partnership with the National Parks in the Alps to feed the information into their policy, planning and heritage materials for the general public. We will disseminate information on the long-term economic exploitation of these landscapes, explaining how pastoralism has developed over the millennia.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research
We have identified the following beneficiaries outside the academic community:
1) The scientific committees of the Alpine National Parks in France in the areas where the research project will be undertaken. Each park has a scientific committee that advises on the management of the park, and comprises invited expert ecologists, historians, sociologists geologists as well as senior park staff.
2) UK national parks - specifically park management committees and outreach/visitor services
3) General public and visitors to park interpretation centres in the Alps and UK national parks
4) Pastoralist professional associations: there are a number of organisations across the Alps
How will they benefit from this research
1. Contribution to the scientific committees that manage parks via the provision of data and analyses of pastoral landscape development and interpretations of variations in landscape resilience over the last three millennia. The parks will benefit through increased knowledge, and the opportunity to kindle renewed visitor interest in the development of the surrounding landscapes. We are already aware that the origins and innovation of food production systems are of great interest to the public. This is apparent when we have given public lectures on our previous research and via the number of visitors to exhibitions that we have helped create.
2. UK national parks will be provided with the results of the project and thereby a framework for investigating and understanding the long-term development of upland pastoral landscapes
3. This project will inform the public (in the Alps and the UK) understanding of the relationship between landscape evolution and diet, and has the potential to contribute to public awareness of the origins of the food production, essential to fostering a critical understanding of the relationship between landscape change and food production.
4. The public will also be informed via digital initiatives discussed with ADS.
5. The PI is already involved with one major pastoralist association in the Alps and will use this as a starting point for interaction with these professional groups.


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