Seasonal calving in European Prehistoric cattle and its impacts on milk availability and cheese-making: impacts on milk availability and cheese-making

Marie Balasse*, Rosalind Gillis, Ivana Živaljević, Rémi Berthon, Lenka Kovačiková, Denis Fiorillo, Rose-Marie Arbogast, Adrian Bălăşescu, Stéphanie Bréhard, Éva Á. Nyerges, Vesna Dimitrijević, Eszter Bánffy, László Domboróczki, Arkadiusz Marciniak, Krisztian Oross, Ivana Vostrovská, Mélanie Roffet-Salque, Sofija Stefanovic, Maria Ivanova

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
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Present-day domestic cattle are reproductively active throughout the year, which is a major asset for dairy production. Large wild ungulates, in contrast, are seasonal breeders, as were the last historic representatives of the aurochs, the wild ancestors of cattle. Aseasonal reproduction in cattle is a consequence of domestication and herding, but exactly when this capacity developed in domestic cattle is still unknown and the extent to which early farming communities controlled the seasonality of reproduction is debated. Seasonal or aseasonal calving would have shaped the socio-economic practices of ancient farming societies differently, structuring the agropastoral calendar and determining milk availability where dairying is attested. In this study, we reconstruct the calving pattern through the analysis of stable oxygen isotope ratios of cattle tooth enamel from 18 sites across Europe, dating from the 6th mill. cal BC (Early Neolithic) in the Balkans to the 4th mill. cal BC (Middle Neolithic) in Western Europe. Seasonal calving prevailed in Europe between the 6th and 4th millennia cal BC. These results suggest that cattle agropastoral systems in Neolithic Europe were strongly constrained by environmental factors, in particular forage resources. The ensuing fluctuations in milk availability would account for cheese-making, transforming a seasonal milk supply into a storable product.
Original languageEnglish
Article number8185
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 14 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by the ERC Starting Grant “SIANHE” (GA 202881, PI: M. Balasse), the ERC Advanced Grant “NeoMilk” (FP7-IDEAS-ERC/324202, P.I.: R.P. Evershed), the ERC Starting Grant “BIRTH” (GA640557, P.I.: S. Stefanović), the DFG “Food Cultures” project (IV 101/5-1, P.I.: M. Ivanova), the MNHN ATM “CyclO-viMed” (dir M. Balasse & S. Bréhard). M. Ivanova is currently funded by the ERC Consolidator Grant “SUSTAIN” (GA 865515, P.I.: M. Ivanova). The authors thank A. Putica, J. Vuković, J. Bulatović, V. Đorđević and B. Zorbić who provided access to the faunal material from the sites in Serbia; J. Vaquer who gave permission to sample the faunal material from Auriac; V. Voinea who gave access to the faunal material from Cheia and D. N. Popovici for allowing sampling Hârșova and Bordușani. We also thank K. Lyublyanovics (Archaeolingua Foundation) for selecting samples from Balatonszárszó-Kis-erdei-dűlő and T. Marton (Institute of Archaeology, RCH, Eöt-vös Loránd Research Network, Centre of Excellence of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences) for checking the archaeological context of the same site. We thank M. Sanchez-Goni (EPHE, and Université de Bordeaux, EPOC), for providing references and explanations on the LBK paleoclimatic framework, and J.-D. Vigne (AASPE, CNRS-MNHN) for helpful comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • biogeochemistry
  • environmental social sciences


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