Scientists uncover earliest cattle herds in northern Europe in the Netherlands

Credit: University of Groningen/EDAN project

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest evidence of cattle herds in northern Europe at the site of Swifterbant in the Netherlands.

By using zoological, botanical, and biochemical methods, researchers investigated how farming began in this region.

They found that these early cattle were not only the first known domestic cattle but were also managed in very specific ways.

Agriculture spread through central Europe around 7,000 years ago with the migration of the people from the Linear Pottery culture.

However, the people living in what are now the Netherlands, northern Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain continued to live as hunter-gatherers.

The question of how and when they adopted farming has been widely debated.

The timing and nature of animal husbandry in the Dutch region were studied in a project based at the University of Groningen. The results, published in the journal Antiquity, show that farming started earlier than previously thought.

“Until now, the earliest clear evidence placed it around 4000 BC, but older dates were contentious,” said Dr. Nathalie Brusgaard, lead author of the publication and now at Leiden University. “Pinpointing when animals transitioned from being hunted to being kept as livestock was particularly challenging.”

Dr. Brusgaard explained, “By 4240 BC, the relationship between humans, animals, and plants had clearly changed. Cattle, sheep, and pigs were being kept alongside crop farming. Additionally, these early farmers had different herds of cattle that were fed and managed in different ways.”

The researchers used stable isotope analysis, a biochemical method that provides insight into the diet of ancient individuals.

By examining the diet of the cattle, they found that the animals could be divided into two distinct groups based on what they ate. One herd grazed in forests, while the other was pastured on manured fields or in salt marshes.

These findings also challenge our understanding of early farmers. “These results tell us that not only were there already farmers in this region as early as 4240 BC, but they were also managing their livestock in complex ways.

They either used distinctive grazing strategies or acquired certain stock from elsewhere,” said Dr. Brusgaard. “These early farmers were incredibly knowledgeable about how to manage livestock in this dynamic environment.”

This discovery sheds new light on the early adoption of farming in northern Europe and demonstrates the advanced techniques used by these early farmers in managing their livestock.