Represented by a worldwide population of about 1.4 billion animals, cattle are some of the major farm animal species that feed today’s world. Since their domestication during the Neolithic, cattle have contributed to important socioeconomic transformations, greatly impacting human diets and agricultural developments, modifying natural and social landscapes, and becoming symbols of power, wealth and religion as well as significant components of our cultural heritage. ARETI explores the impact of historically significant events, including human migrations, agricultural intensification, population expansion, urbanisation and demand for agricultural products as well as climate change on cattle management practices and genetic structure, focusing on prehistoric and historic Cyprus. Upon completion, the project will offer novel scientific findings for archaeology and the history of animal breeding and genetics and contribute to the development, promotion and implementation of sustainable strategies for conserving and further improving the adaptive genetic traits of the indigenous, currently underappreciated Cyprus’ local cattle breed.

Figure 2a: Cows of the Cyprus local cattle breed (Photo Credits: Agricultural Research Institute and INRA France, GALIMED project).

Figure 2b: Cattle of the indigenous breed roaming freely at the Akrotiri marsh. Local cattle populations contribute to ecosystem engineering; by pushing back the reeds they create suitable habitats for birds and they support local biodiversity (Photo Credits: Cyprus’ BirdLife Society).

 

EXPLORING HUMAN-CATTLE INTERACTIONS IN PREHISTORIC CYPRUS

Being closely located to the “heartlands” of taurine cattle domestication, Anatolia and the Middle East, and at the crossroads of several major human and cattle migration routes, Cyprus represents an interesting “hotspot” to investigate cattle management practices and genetic blending in an “island laboratory”. Cattle followed a very interesting pathway on the island, documented in the rich cattle bone assemblages that span the PPNB to Byzantine times. The disappearance of cattle during the Khirokitian Neolithic remains a mystery to be further explored, while the re-introduction of cattle during the Early Bronze Age signified a revolution into all aspects of the island’s economic and social life. To explore this long story of human-cattle interactions in Cyprus, ARETI draws on different sources of evidence and uses a wide range of scientific and anthropologically-oriented methods.

  • Zooarchaeological Evidence

 ARETI studies cattle bone assemblages from archaeological sites, spanning the Neolithic to historical time periods with the aim to understand how these large and multifunctional animals were incorporated in the Cypriot economy and society during different points in time.  ARETI will specifically focus on reconstructing the age profiles of cattle to reveal information about the animals’ function (for dairying, meat, ploughing or traction purposes etc), and on identifying pathologies such as osteoarthrites and exostoses, which are potentially associated to mechanical stress put on the animals during ploughing and draught activities.

 

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Figure 3a: Normal (left) and pathological (right) Bos sp. first phalanx from the Bronze Age site of Kition Kathari; Figure 3b. Ox cart, near Colombo fort.

  • Iconographic Evidence

Cattle representations on different forms of art media can provide indirect information about the role of cattle in everyday life, cosmology and religion. There is a wealth of cattle figurines, each one with its unique realistic and artistic features and ARETI will study them along with the physical remains of animals. One of the most interesting aspects of cattle iconography is the appearance of humped cattle, especially from the end of the Late Bronze Age onwards, suggesting that the local craftspeople were familiar with the southwest Asian indicine or zebu cattle. In order to further explore the timing of the introduction of this thermotolerant animal on the island we will apply ancient DNA analysis on archaeological cattle bone and teeth.


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Figure 4a: Terracotta figurines with pronounced humps from Ayia Irini, LCII-III, Cyprus Museum, Nicosia ((Inv. No. 1984/1-21/2 &1-21/1). Figure 4b. Bos indicus or zebu cattle. Zebu have pronounced humps on their shoulders, well-developed dewlaps, long and pendulous ears and upward-facing horns.

 

  • Evidence from ancient DNA

Ancient DNA analysis is a powerful tool for studying how humans enabled animal mobility in antiquity and can provide indirect evidence for deliberate genetic admixtures in the past. ARETI collaborates with the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, the leading lab in ancient cattle genomics to explore the timing and the reasons of the introduction of zebu cattle on the island.

  • Evidence from Stable Isotopes

Zooarchaeological and stable isotopic approaches, when employed simultaneously, can provide insights into animal management practices that would have been undetectable to either technique applied in isolation. ARETI applies light stable isotopes, namely carbon (δ13C) and oxygen (δ18O) to delve into cattle management practices, especially in regards to cattle foddering and mobility.

Figure 5: Preparing archaeological cattle bone and teeth samples for stable isotopic analysis at The Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena (Germany). Stable isotopic analysis will help us to delve into cattle management practices.

  • Ethnographic Approaches

When the above information is combined with ethnographic studies and historical documents, it is possible to perceive how attitudes to cattle have changed over time. In a conservative, agrarian society such as Cyprus, cattle were the backbone of the economic and social life.  Until the second half of the 20th century, cattle (mainly oxen) were traditionally bred for draught purposes while travelers visiting the island inform us that the peasants of Cyprus never ate the flesh of oxen, cows or calves and never drank cow’s milk. Pavlos Xioutas in his Cypriot Folklore of Animals describes how cattle and oxen have been integral components of the island’s religious life. In order to explore long-term human attitudes towards cattle and oxen and understand the emotional bond between humans and working animals, we explore the role of cattle in the island ’s historical sources, proverbs, myths and folklore traditions.

Figure 6: An ox of the Cyprus local breed (From Christodoulou 2013)

 

The Cyprus’ local cattle breed:

Current status and plans for conservation

Until recently, little research has been carried out on the genetic diversity and genetic status of the indigenous cattle breed of Cyprus. However, during the last decade our knowledge has been improved and significant attempts have been made by various research institutions in Cyprus and abroad to better characterize the breed. Contemporary genetic research has demonstrated that the island’s local cattle breed possesses a strong Bos indicus or zebu ancestry (Flori et al. 2019; Papachristou et al. 2020), which explains why the animal is having such a pronounced hump on its shoulders and a well-developed dewlap. However, we still don’t know whether the admixture between the European and the Southwest Asian subspecies of cattle occurred during the prehistoric or historic time periods.   The Cyprus local cattle breed is characterised by low growth rate and low productivity and the mother’s milk production is limited to the necessary amount to feed the calf. During the period of the British Colonia Rule, many attempts to improve the characteristics of the breed have been made, by crossing it with more productive breeds such as the Aberdeen Angus, however these attempts have failed. The indigenous cattle populations of Cyprus have been exclusively used in traditional agriculture and for pulling the cart; however, after the mechanization of agriculture the number of animals has been decreased. Even though not highly productive, the local cattle breed of Cyprus has many advantageous features, including its unique ability to adapt to local climatic conditions. As a multidisciplinary research programme ARETI brings together Zooarchaeology and Conservation Biology and by highlighting the historical value of the island’s local cattle it aims to increase public awareness about the Cyprus local cattle breed and contribute to its conservation.