Researchers have made an archaeological discovery that changes our understanding of prehistoric agriculture in Europe. Excavations at the Anciens Arsenaux site in Sion, Switzerland, have revealed evidence that Neolithic farmers were using animal traction to pull plows from 5,100 to 4,700 years ago.

This discovery predates by nearly a millennium what were previously the oldest known plow marks. Before this finding, the clearest evidence of animals pulling plow-like tools in European agriculture came from sites in Denmark and northern Germany dating back about 3,700 years.

The Sion site contains parallel furrows and impressions in the ground consistent with being made by a plow dragged through the soil, as well as hoofprints indicating that the pulling force came from domesticated cattle or oxen.

Detailed radiocarbon dating of organic materials found above and below these soil disturbances allowed researchers to conclusively date these pieces of evidence to the early Neolithic period.

These new findings show that animal traction in agriculture appeared very early after agriculture itself emerged in the alpine region of Europe, explain the researchers. It wasn’t a later adaptation but likely an integral part of the early processes of continent-wide neolithization.

Discoveries of ancient plow marks are extremely rare because they are fragile and easily erased by erosion or subsequent agriculture. The furrows in Sion were only preserved because they were quickly covered by sediments from a nearby stream that kept their impressions intact in the soil layers.

The use of animal power to pull plows represents a significant technological innovation over agriculture relying solely on human labor and hand tools, allowing for the cultivation of much larger areas and greatly increasing agricultural productivity and surplus. It is believed that this surplus production drove economic stratification and social complexity in many early agricultural societies.

The dating of the plow marks in Sion suggests that we need to reevaluate long-standing theories about the pace of agricultural intensification and its impact on society during the expansion of agriculture across Neolithic Europe, the archaeologists said. The ability to work larger fields with animal traction may have emerged from the outset rather than being a later revolutionary development.

Previous evidence of animal bones suggested intermittent use of cattle or oxen for traction since the seventh millennium BCE in regions such as Anatolia and the Balkans. However, this is the first unequivocal archaeological evidence of widespread plow agriculture dating back so far in prehistory.

While these surprisingly early dates from Sion change our understanding, researchers point out that the site’s location in a significant alpine valley may have been an ideal environment to quickly adopt and preserve evidence of plow use. Increasing erosion and intensive subsequent agricultural development may have erased any early analog traces across the vast European plains where Neolithic agriculture initially settled.

The archaeological team plans further excavations in similar alpine environments across Switzerland and Italy to continue investigating the origins of animal traction in agriculture.


Sources

van Willigen, S., Ozainne, S., Guélat, M. et al. New evidence for prehistoric ploughing in Europe. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 11, 372 (2024). doi.org/10.1057/s41599-024-02837-5


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