Sheep farming may have helped Neolithic farmers spread across the Mediterranean

A recent study published in Scientific Reports suggests that the specialization in sheep farming among early Neolithic populations in Dalmatia, Croatia, played a significant role in the rapid expansion of these communities and the spread of agriculture throughout the central and western Mediterranean. The research, led by the UAB (Autonomous University of Barcelona) and the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research), introduces a methodological innovation in the study of prehistoric flocks.

The spread of agriculture in the central and western Mediterranean occurred swiftly, as the first farmers migrated from the Adriatic region to the Iberian Peninsula around 8,000 years ago. Understanding the organization and expansion of these societies provides valuable insights. While it is known that their economy relied on cereal agriculture and sheep and goat farming, little information exists regarding the functioning of this agropastoral system.

To investigate pastoral practices and the use of animal products, the study focused on the Eastern Adriatic region, specifically the Dalmatian sites of Tinj-Podlivade and Crno Vrilo. A team of researchers, led by Alejandro Sierra from the UAB and the Natural History Museum of Paris, CNRS, found evidence that early farmers at both sites specialized in sheep farming, contrary to previous beliefs that they also raised goats. They practiced early pastoral techniques and utilized products like milk and meat from sheep. Most of the births occurred in early winter, suggesting the organization of an annual agropastoral calendar.

The results imply the presence of a shared animal economy at both sites, potentially linked to the mobility strategies employed by these early agricultural societies across the Mediterranean. Archaeological evidence found on various islands supports the hypothesis that the rapid spread occurred through sea travel. Sierra suggests that sheep specialization may have been part of an anticipatory mobility strategy, with populations adapting their navigation plans to increase their chances of success. Sheep were a suitable choice due to their advantages in movement and settlement.

The study introduced a methodological breakthrough by combining zooarchaeology, palaeoproteomics, and stable isotopes to determine the composition of the herds and their management. This approach represents not only a historical discovery but also an innovative research method. Sierra emphasizes the importance of applying similar techniques to other sites in the Adriatic region to determine whether the findings are specific to the Dalmatian sites or represent a coherent pattern of early Neolithic animal management across the area.

Source: Autonomous University of Barcelona

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