Jacqueline Towers

The significance of cattle birth seasonality in the detection of dairying in archaeology

Supervisor: Janet Montgomery and Ingrid Mainland
Funding: AHRC

The detection of dairying is essential if we are to understand the economies of prehistoric communities, particularly in northwest Europe where the degree of lactose tolerance is high, suggesting that milk has long been a very significant food product. This project aims to evaluate a potentially powerful method by which cattle dairying in prehistory might be detected from archaeological tooth enamel. The basis of this method is a possible link between year-round calving and dairying. Although cattle can breed throughout the year, their breeding behaviour is influenced by climate and the seasonal availability of food and, unless intentionally managed by herders to calve year-round, they tend to breed seasonally. However, there are archaeological studies that do suggest year-round calving. Since considerable effort is required to encourage non-seasonal birthing, perhaps involving the provision of additional fodder and shelter, there must have been a significant benefit in doing so. One possible impetus might have been the continuous supply of milk, providing nutritious food even in winter.

Because cattle molar teeth form sequentially before and after birth, time-related information becomes embedded in the chemical composition of tooth enamel. By analysing the oxygen isotope composition of enamel, the season of birth may be determined. One important function of this project will be to assess the reliability of the method by testing it against modern cattle, whose life histories are known. In addition, a literature-based study of traditional cattle rearing in modern and historical periods will be carried out to determine the factors affecting season of birth and whether there is a link between year-round calving and milk production. Finally, the method will be used to determine cattle birth seasonality for a series of archaeological case studies from the North Atlantic region, including Britain, where either milk- or meat-only


Last Updated:15 February 2010