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Does Elba the ‘Shepherdess’ Show Early Animal Domestication?

Does Elba the ‘Shepherdess’ Reveal Early Animal Domestication?

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A Mesolithic woman, now known as “Elba the Shepherdess, who lived 9,300 years ago has been brought back to life by facial reconstruction engineers. However, Elba the Shepherdess’s remains were discovered with three animals, likely wild cattle or aurochs. Was she really an early “shepherdess,” as some scientists are calling her?

The ancient remains of “Elba,” which in Spain means “the woman who comes from the mountains,” were found in the Chando Lindeiro cave in the northwestern region of Galicia, Spain, in 1996. Now, a new study presents the reconstructed face of the 9,300 years old Mesolithic woman. The “dark skinned, brown eyed and dark haired woman” is said to look similar to her UK contemporary, Cheddar Man.

Aurochs, horses, and deer depicted in ancient rock art at the famous caves of Lascaux in France indicating early animal domestication just like Elba the Shepherdess's remains next to three wild cattle or aurochs in the cave in Galicia, Spain also seem to suggest. However, indications of animal domestication can be misleading. (Lascaux / Public domain)

Reconstituting The Remains Of Elba the Shepherdess

According to Gizmodo, Dr Aurora Grandal Danglade, a paleontologist professor at the Institute of Geology at the University da Coruna, said that the original discovery and recovery of the ancient woman “was difficult.” The team of researchers could only access the ancient bones through a thin sinkhole that channeled through the collapsed cave. When the scientists saw Elba up close they realized that she was not alone. The remains of three aurochs (wild cattle) and Elba s skeleton were all excavated together in 2010.

Dr Fernando Serrulla analyzed Elba’s skull and determined that it had belonged to a woman aged between 20 and 40, who was around 1.5 meters (5 ft) tall. The woman’s bones dated back 9,300 years and were around the same age as the bones of the three aurochs. It is suspected that they all inhabited the same cave and that they all perished in the sinkhole collapse.

The remains of the aurochs or wild cattle found in the cave along with Elba the Shepherdess. (UDC)

Early Animal Domestication Is Suggested But Not Certain Yet

The story gets a little controversial here. Dr Danglade and her team wrote in the new paper that they believe “Elba looked after the animals.” While this might seem like a perfectly normal assumption it really is not.

It is a sentence with deep penetrating implications. According to Archaeology News Network the team of researchers call Elba the “shepherdess,” implying that she had domesticated the three wild animals. However, many mainstream archaeologists and anthropologists flat out reject that the domestication of these creatures had occurred as early as 9,300 years ago.

Danglade agrees that the mass domestication of wild animals happened thousands of years later, and it is made clear that the team are “not saying that Elba was the first person to have domesticated animals.” However, what they are saying is that they “believe there may not have been a unique place where animals were domesticated” and that Elba the Shepherdess “might be” evidence for the early domestication of animals in some places.”

A reconstruction of Elba the Shepherdess. (Museums of Quiroga)

A reconstruction of Elba the Shepherdess. (Museums of Quiroga)

Learning About Elba the Shepherdess From Science

Two different methods of bone analysis first determined Elba’s maternal lineage descended from populations of hunter-gatherers, then specific facial detailing was gathered to help reconstruct the womans facial features.

Dr Danglade said Elba’s dark skin “was common in other humans in Europe at the time. In fact, Elba was a contemporary of Cheddar Man (a Mesolithic man found in in Somerset, England), but with brown eyes rather than the blue eyes of Cheddar Man.” The results of the research team s reconstruction of Elba s face were unveiled at the reopening of the Museum Xeoloxico of Quiroga in Galicia at the end of 2020.

Behind the exterior skin Danglade said “it s not common to see teeth cavities in hunters and gatherers as they did not eat a lot of carbohydrates.” However, Elba had a large cavity that must have caused her considerable tooth pain. And so far as “where” those damaging carbs came from, the researchers say Elba “ate forest fruits and berries but was not a big carnivore.” It is also known that Elba had very toned muscles and that an old, healed fracture on her right foot probably caused Elba to limp when she walked.

The only thing left to work out here is if Elba shared a cave with three wild animals that roamed freely, or if she kept them there? Big difference!

Top image: Artistic reconstruction of Elba the Shepherdess Elba accompanied by the three aurochs found at the site and whose mitochondrial DNA has been analyzed.          Source: José Antonio Peñas / SiNC

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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