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Animal Board Invited Review: Sheep birth distribution in past herds: a review for prehistoric Europe (6th to 3rd millennia BC)

  • M. Balasse (a1), A. Tresset (a1), A. Bălăşescu (a2), E. Blaise (a1), C. Tornero (a1), H. Gandois (a3), D. Fiorillo (a1), É. Á. Nyerges (a4), D. Frémondeau (a5) (a6), E. Banffy (a4) (a7) and M. Ivanova (a8)...
Abstract

In temperate latitudes sheep have a seasonal reproductive behaviour, which imposes strong constraints on husbandry in terms of work organization and availability of animal products. During the last 50 years, researchers have focused on understanding the mechanisms driving small ruminants’ reproduction cycles and finding ways to control them. This characteristic is inherited from their wild ancestor. However, the history of its evolution over the 10 millennia that separates present day European sheep from their Near Eastern ancestors’ remains to be written. This perspective echoes archaeologists’ current attempts at reconstructing ancient pastoral societies’ socio-economical organization. Information related to birth seasonality may be retrieved directly from archaeological sheep teeth. The methodology consists of reconstructing the seasonal cycle record in sheep molars, through sequential analysis of the stable oxygen isotope composition (δ 18O) of enamel. Because the timing of tooth development is fixed within a species, inter-individual variability in this parameter reflects birth seasonality. A review of the data obtained from 10 European archaeological sites dated from the 6th to the 3rd millennia BC is provided. The results demonstrate a restricted breeding season for sheep: births occurred over a period of 3 to 4 months, from late winter to early summer at latitudes 43°N to 48°N, while a later onset was observed at a higher latitude (59°N). All conclusions concurred with currently held expectations based on present day sheep physiology, which, aside from the historical significance, contributes to the reinforcing of the methodological basis of the approach. Further study in this area will permit regional variability attributable to technical choices, within global schemes, to be fully reported.

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      Animal Board Invited Review: Sheep birth distribution in past herds: a review for prehistoric Europe (6th to 3rd millennia BC)
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Copyright
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
E-mail: balasse@mnhn.fr
Footnotes
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a

Present address: Labex ARCHIMEDE, program IA-ANR-11-LABX-0032-01, UMR 5140, Archéologie des Sociétés Méditerranéennes, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 3, 390 avenue de Pérols, F-34970 Lattes, France.

b

Present address: Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES), C/Marcel·lí Domingo s/n, Campus Sescelades URV (Edifici W3), 43007 Tarragona, Spain.

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M Balasse , A Bălăşescu , A Janzen , J Ughetto-Monfrin , P Mirea and R Andreescu 2013. Early herding at Magura-Boldul lui Mos Ivanus (early sixth millennium BC, Romania): environments and seasonality from stable isotope analysis. European Journal of Archaeology 16, 221246.

M Balasse , L Boury , J Ughetto-Monfrin and A Tresset 2012a. Stable isotope insights (δ18O, δ13C) into cattle and sheep husbandry at Bercy (Paris, France, IV millennium BC): birth seasonality and winter leaf foddering. Environmental Archaeology 17, 2944.

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M Balasse , C Tornero , S Bréhard , J Ughetto-Monfrin , V Voinea and A Bălăşescu 2014. Cattle and sheep herding at Cheia, Romania, at the turn of the fifth millennium cal BC: a view from stable isotope analysis. In Early farmers: the view from archaeology and science (ed. A Whittle and P Bickle), pp. 115142. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

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C Tornero , A Bălăşescu , J Ughetto-Monfrin , V Voinea and M Balasse 2013. Seasonality and season of birth in early Eneolithic sheep from Cheia (Romania): methodological advances and implications for animal economy. Journal of Archaeological Science 40, 40394055.

C Tornero , M Balasse , M Molist and M Sana 2016. Seasonal reproductive patterns of early domestic sheep at Tell Halula (PPNB, Middle Euphrates Valley): evidence from sequential oxygen isotope analyses of tooth enamel. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6, 810818.

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