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

Abstract

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.
 
Description The first phase of this project is engaging with the two following objectives:
1) Characterisation of the composition of the livestock in the different areas (from lowland to upland) of the Western Alps from Protohistoric to Medieval period.
2) Assessment of the temporal variation in the management systems and exploitation of the principal domestic animals (sheep/goat, cattle and pig)

These objectives are being met via the synthesis and analysis of data from a wide range of published and unpublished sources. A total of 200 published and unpublished zooarcheological studies from south-eastern France, south-western Switzerland and north-western Italy have been analysed.

The results show, without chronological distinction, larger consumption of domestic sheep and goat in the southern Provence area while pigs and cattle were most frequent in the upper Rhone Valley. In north-western Italy (val d'Aosta), the consummation of goat is predominant, but cattle probably provided a substantial part of the meat resources. Only a few data are available in Switzerland (Valais), but results highlight the scarcity of cattle

The observed distribution appears to relate to the degree of economic integration but also ecological factors within each region. Indeed, the drier climate in the Southern Provence seems to be more favourable for the ecological requirements of goat rather than cattle.

Goat and cattle teeth have been selected to investigate the herding strategies and notably the seasonal mobility of the livestock by strontium and oxygen isotopes analyses.

Results reveal that there were significant diachronic changes in animal production. A significant increase of pig frequencies appears notably during the second century AD and could reflect the diet of the Roman soldiers during the Roman conquest. Around the X and XI centuries, the consummation of the sheep and pig decreases while the contribution of cow increases gradually until the XIV century. During the same period, the aDNA cattle signal increases substantially in the mountain pastoral area. The increase of cattle may have resulted in higher pressure on the lowland pastures and the necessitated seasonal movement to high mountain areas for grazing. In the future, these results will be refined in order to identify distinct regional variations. The strontium and oxygen isotopes analyses will allow us to test the hypothesis of the seasonal mobility of the cattle from lowland urban sites to highland mountain pastures.

With regards to the sedaDNA work package, six lake sediment cores have been sampled for sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) analysis to date. The sedaDNA core samples have all been extracted and based on DNA fluorometric measurements; all seem to contain an expected range of DNA quantity. This environmental DNA pool is currently being processed for sequencing analysis. With the application of advanced bioinformatics, we are combining palynological data on past and present vegetation with our results. The genetic data was obtained through the established method of metabarcoding, which is a relevant tool for reconstructing palaeoenvironments. Using the same approach with additional quantitative PCR analysis for mammalian sedaDNA offers even more detailed insights into the presence and possible abundance of domestic species in the lake catchment area. This application can demonstrate the potential of sedaDNA in reconstructing palaeoenvironments and its relevance in conceptualising long-term ecosystem changes relating to human and non-human agencies. This time next year, we will have completed these analyses, integrated the sedaDNA results with age-depth models of the lake cores, thus permitting the interpretation of land-use/pastoral changes in our study areas.

Update 2020/1
We have completed metabarcoding data for three alpine lakes now. The key findings are as follows.
For a mid-altitude lake (940m), Roche de Rame (Durance Valley, Southern French Alps) plant sequencing data for La Roche de Rame: we see the beginning of cereal culture in the lake vicinity during the Iron Age, and the occurrence of fruit trees during the Roman period, including the detection of red and black currants and weeds associated with cultivated fields.

At the high-altitude lakes, we are seeing some problems with perseveration or capture of DNA due to the nature of the erosion processes in these areas. This partially negative result is important for all colleagues involved in this type of pf research as it allows us to predict which type of lake is suitable for this research. Analyses for the DNA of domesticated mammals is ongoing.

? So far, multi-isotopic analyses (87Sr/86Sr, d18O and d13C) on 17 sheep teeth from a high-altitude settlement occupied during the Second Iron Age (La Cime de la Tournerie, 1830 m asl) have revealed a predominantly local breeding strategy focusing on the exploitation of the grazing and fodder resources available in the site environment. In this high-altitude context, this strategy shows the capacity of herders to cope with seasonal climatic constraints that have an impact on the availability of grassland resources. This is the first example of such a study of an alpine Iron Age site and provides an insight into early flock management. For the moment, this suggests localised animal mobility.

? The study of the sheep's birth seasons through the analyses of d18O allows us to highlight the long history of the management of this trait in the region and its co-evolution with mobile pastoral systems and the Roman conquest. To date, 38 teeth from eight sites from the Iron Age to the medieval period and from high altitude to the Provencal plains have been analysed. Although the results reveal that the earliest out-of-season (late summer/autumn) birth in a mountain context occurs in the Middle Neolithic, a short birthing period (late winter/spring/early summer) predominates from the Middle Neolithic to the late Middle Ages, and no autumn lambing has been recorded. These initial results, therefore, suggest that the pastoral calendar must have been strongly constrained by this seasonal rhythm of births and that, in the context of summer transhumance systems, lambing, as well as dairying activities, may have taken place at high altitudes. This type of knowledge is significant as it allows us to assess how and when current animal management practices developed.
Exploitation Route As the first stage in this project, we now have a strong foundation for the subsequent analyses. In particular, the measurement of strontium and oxygen isotopes from selected teeth from the domesticates described in the previous section. These results should allow us to consider mobility patterns as related to long-distance transhumance. These results will be integrated with the work undertaken on pollen and ancient DNA from alpine lake cores. This work aims to understand the varying patterns of pasture use at high altitude across time.

With regards to the sedimentary DNA work, we can see how certain types of lakes are yielding good records while others are more problematic. This type of assessment in a research area that is still in the early stages of development is important.

With regards to the isotope and zooarchaeological work, despite the impact of COVID, the quality of isotope data retrieved from our chosen method (laser ablation) is excellent. It is allowing us to identify animal mobility via extremely high-resolution variations in strontium. These data are complemented by the oxygen isotope data that allows the assessment of movement across altitudinal zones. Combined, we are confident that come the end of the project, we will have demonstrated the value of this methodology is the interrogation of complex animal mobility p[atterns and the organisation of Alpine pastoralism. We have completed the first draft of a scientific paper that explains pour analytical framework and the associated interpretive strategy.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

URL https://sites.google.com/york.ac.uk/pastoralismtranshumanceinthewe/home?authuser=0
 
Description Activities about the Animal bones in Archaeology at the YorNight Event 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Familial event with activities and game (3D bones puzzle, animals origin map) to discover the work of zooarchaeologist and learn about anatomy and history of the animals.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/yornight/2020/activities/animal-bones/
 
Description Animed Seminar Series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact PDRA 1 - Knockaert presented initial results and her previous research on pastoral mobility to a group of postgraduate students and researchers at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, 15
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://sites.google.com/york.ac.uk/pastoralismtranshumanceinthewe/project-news-and-events?authuser=...
 
Description Conference presentation by International collaborator, Sylvain Burri in Antibes, France 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This was a conference presentation undertaken by an international collaborator, Sylvain Burri, CNRS, Toulouse. This presentation did not present the results of this AHRC project, as we are still in the early stages of research. This AHRC project was advertised as contributing to the future direction in the field of research that considers the development of Mediterranean pastoral systems.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://sites.google.com/york.ac.uk/pastoralismtranshumanceinthewe/project-news-and-events?authuser=...
 
Description Conference presentation on the research and methodological framework for the investigation of transhumant pastoral systems in the Alps 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a paper at the European Association of archaeologists conference in Barcelona. The specific session addressed the issue of integrating aDNA evidence in archaeological investigations of landscape change.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited lecturer at the University of York in the Seminar Series "Zooarchaelogy" - Lecture titled: Pathway project: Understanding the origins and long-term history of animal economy and pastoral systems in the Western Alps. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The conference sparked interest in the project and in the first zooarchaeological and isotope results.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Invited speaker at Computational and Digital Archaeology Laboratory Series, University of Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Oral presentation about Ancient DNA in lake sediments and its application for archaeological research. The talk led to questions and discussion afterwards and sparked interest in this research among audience members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Invited talk - Making the Most of Soils in Archaeology 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact KD was invited to present a talk on Ancient DNA and Proteins from Sediments at the workshop "Making the Most of Soils in Archaeology" organised by the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The framework of this workshop was to get different experts working with soils together to advise archaeologists and the wider research community about best practices for sampling and future preservation of archaeological soils retrieved during excavations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Invited talk at the University of Nottingham in the Seminar Series "Future Food Beacon" - Talk titled "Ancient DNA from lake sediments" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The talk sparked interest in the project and the ways Ancient DNA is used to investigate human-environment interactions. The audience participated in a lively discussion after the talk.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Oral presentation in Environment Seminar Series at the University of York - Talk title: Ancient DNA from lake sediments 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Oral presentation about the use of Ancient DNA in lake sediment studies, with a focus on the Pathway project, to engage with staff and students from another department within the university. The talk sparked questions and discussion afterwards and several overlapping research interests were highlighted.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Participation in workshop - oral presentation. Workshop: The Neolithic settlement of "La Marmotta" - A view on the Neolithic expansion. Rome 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Oral presentation about use of ancient DNA from lake sediments in archaeological research context, which sparked interest in use of method and future collaboration
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public lecture (local) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to a local archaeology society explaining our research in Alps. More specifically, a presentation of the changes in human activity in the high-altitude zone of the southern Fernehc alps
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk about ''Livestock Management and Herding Strategies on an alpine site during Medieval and Modern Periods by Zooarcheology, Proteomics and Isotopic analyses.'' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a talk at the European Association of archaeologists conference in Bern. The specific session focused on the Bioarchaeological approaches to understanding the long-term development of mountain societies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.e-a-a.org/EAA2019/Programme.aspx?Program=3
 
Description Talk entitled ''Tracking vertical mobility and sheep husbandry practices in the North-western Alps (Switzerland): a modern isotopic investigation.'' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a talk with a scientific audience at the European Association of Archaeologists conference in Bern. The specific session co-organized by several members of our project focused on the bioarcheological approaches to understanding the long-term development of mountain societies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.e-a-a.org/EAA2019/Programme.aspx?Program=3
 
Description Trajectories: Summer School 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This "summer school" took place in a research centre in the French Alps the aim was to discuss how to develop transdisciplinary research of an alpine landscape that involved local interested people (farmers, national parks workers, local politicians and researchers). All of these groups were represented during this three-day meeting. My contribution comprised a review of the development of pastoralism in the Alps with a focus on the aims and objectives of the AHRC project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://trajectories.sciencesconf.org/resource/page/id/1