Animal Traction and Household Economies in Neolithic Europe

By Bogucki, Peter | Antiquity, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Animal Traction and Household Economies in Neolithic Europe


Bogucki, Peter, Antiquity


Most archaeological interest in the story of European social evolution has looked to the grand picture, as the bands combine and climb at last to achieve states and empires. What about the structure of European Neolithic as it was experienced at home, when the ox, the

pig, the sheep and the goat came to live in the domestic unit of the single household?

The goal of this essay is to explore some interrelationships among domestic animals and Neolithic households and to propose some hypotheses about the role of domestic livestock, especially cattle, in Neolithic social and economic organization. Neolithic sites in Europe typically yield samples of animal bones ranging from enormous to minuscule in their numbers of identifiable specimens. Faunal remains are assemblages of dead animals, and as a result there is a long-standing bias towards viewing livestock as subsistence resources, with far less consideration given to their economic roles while living. This bias is understandable, for faunal remains are archaeological data and prehistoric living animals are abstract concepts. While the concept of 'secondary products' has addressed this issue to some degree, there is still a tendency to think in terms of 'products' rather than viewing animals as 'assets' in the Neolithic economy. This essay attempts to recast the discussion to take the role of living animals, particularly domestic cattle, into account. In particular, it explores the implications of a neglected aspect of the Secondary Products Revolution (SPR), cattle husbandry and animal traction, for other aspects of prehistoric society in temperate Europe.

Revisiting the Secondary Products Revolution

It has been more than a decade since Andrew Sherratt (1981; 1983) coined the term 'Secondary Products Revolution' for the emergence of a pattern of animal exploitation in the Late Neolithic/Copper Age of southeastern Europe and the Middle Neolithic of central Europe about 3000 BC. In its broadest outlines, the SPR represented a shift in the use of domestic animals from their serving mainly as providers of 'primary products' requiring the death of the animal, such as meat and hides, to their exploitation for 'secondary products', renewable resources taken from living animals, such as milk, wool and animal traction. Although some (e.g. Chapman 1982; Bogucki 1984) have taken issue with the 'revolutionary' character of this concept by pointing to evidence for some elements, such as dairying, in earlier prehistoric periods, nonetheless it is clear that approaches to animal husbandry became progressively more complex during the Neolithic.

Evidence for the SPR in temperate Europe comes from sources summarized by Sherratt (1981; 1983) and Greenfield (1988; 1989): ceramic sieves and vessels presumed to have been used in milk handling; animal figurines; remains of wagons, wagon parts and ploughs in burials and waterlogged deposits; wagon models and representations on pottery; rockcarvings of wagons; and plough-marks on fossil soils under barrows. Faunal evidence has been presented by Greenfield (1988; 1989). Evidence for the initial use of secondary products is diffuse and scattered geographically, although it is temporally rather sharply defined. Rarely does a single site provide a corpus of data which, taken alone, provides convincing evidence for secondary products. Perhaps it is simply a matter of time and recognition of relevant data until local developments can be documented better. Recently, for example, Milisauskas & Kruk (1991) have presented evidence from Bronocice in southeastern Poland, dating to c. 3500--3000 BC. Here, cattle form the major component of the faunal assemblage, with cows comprising just over half of the specimens that could be sexed and oxen -- castrated males -- accounting for about 20%. In addition, Bronocice has yielded a vessel with representations of what are almost certainly wagons, and a horn core has furrows worn in it, possibly the results of yoking with a rope across the horns. …

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