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Oxen and goat hoofprints found at the site, which were found alongside the oldest plough marks (top left) in Europe, are evidence that cattle domestication existed very early in the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture. Source: Nature.com; ARIA SA

Europe’s Oldest Plough Marks Discovered in Switzerland, Dated to 7,000 Years Ago!

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Excavations at the Anciens Arsenaux site in Sion, Switzerland, have changed the way we understand prehistoric agriculture in Europe forever. Compelling evidence has emerged suggesting that Neolithic farmers employed animal traction to operate ploughs between 5,100 and 4,700 years ago, predating the oldest plough marks by a millennium.

The parallel furrows and ground impressions consistent with those made by a plough dragged through the soil. Along with the hoofprints also discovered at the site, these point to the domestication of cattle here in the service of agriculture.

Prior to this discovery, the most prominent evidence of animals being utilized to pull plough-like tools in European agriculture originated from sites in Denmark and northern Germany, dating back approximately 3,700 years.

Evidence of plough marks before 2,000 BC are limited to only a few regions of Europe, with the Anciens Arsenaux site (yellow) being by far the oldest (Nature.com; ARIA SA)

Evidence of plough marks before 2,000 BC are limited to only a few regions of Europe, with the Anciens Arsenaux site (yellow) being by far the oldest (Nature.com; ARIA SA)

While previous evidence from animal bones suggested occasional use of cattle or oxen for traction in regions like Anatolia and the Balkans since the seventh millennium BC, this discovery marks the first concrete proof of widespread plough agriculture in prehistoric archaeology. These findings and more have been published in detail in the latest edition of the journal Humanities Social Science Communications.

Neolithic Anciens Arsenaux and Plough Marks

Situated in Sion, Canton of Valais, Switzerland, the Anciens Arsenaux site sits on the alluvial cone of the Sionne, an Alpine torrent flowing through the town and into the Rhône. The excavation, conducted in 2017 for the Valais Cantonal Archives, revealed an area spanning 800 square meters (8,600 square foot) characterized by alternating human occupation layers and a substantial ten-meter (33 foot) thick accumulation of alluvial deposits.

Research findings indicate that the settlement levels at the site span a considerable portion of the Neolithic period, estimated to range from around 5200 to 3500 BC, as documented through comprehensive studies.

The presence of these alluvial deposits facilitated this discovery. Ancient plough marks are notoriously ephemeral, and are easily erased by erosion or subsequent agricultural activities. The presence of the furrows in Sion can be attributed to the swift covering of the surrounding stream's sediments, allowing an effective preservation of the impressions of the furrows within the soil layers.

“Plough marks are the most tangible, widespread and convincing evidence. They consist of linear depressions filled with sediment of a different texture and colour than that of the surrounding deposits. Such marks can be followed over dozens of meters to form parallel or criss-crossing networks. They imply the use of a specific tool, the ard and its traction by a powerful animal such as an ox,” write the authors of the study.

The plough marks after excavation (Nature.com; ARIA SA)

The plough marks after excavation (Nature.com; ARIA SA)

Researchers utilized detailed radiocarbon dating on organic materials found above and below these soil disturbances to conclusively date these pieces of evidence to the early Neolithic period. These findings shed light on the early emergence of animal traction in agriculture shortly after the inception of agriculture itself in the alpine regions of Europe, reports Arkeonews. It appears to have been an integral component of the early processes of continent-wide neolithization rather than a later adaptation.

The Huge Significance of early Domestication

Compared to agriculture reliant solely on human labor and hand tools, the utilization of animal power to pull ploughs signifies a significant technological and cultural innovation in the annals of human history and development. This advancement likely enhanced agricultural productivity and surplus, also enabling the cultivation of much larger areas.

“The Anciens Arsenaux site therefore documents the early use of animal power in the Alpine arc, already recorded in the area in more recent or contemporary contexts at Aosta-Saint-Martin-de-Corléans, Italy (before 4300–4000 cal BC) and at Chur-Welschdörfli, Switzerland (before 3500 cal BC),” says the study.

In many early agricultural societies, the resulting surplus production is believed to have contributed to economic stratification and social complexity. Surplus production also allowed for further nomadic settlement, allowing previously mobile societies to have more and more children, resulting in the earliest population booms.

The dating of the plough marks discovered in Sion prompts a reevaluation of longstanding theories concerning the pace of agricultural intensification and its societal impacts during the spread of agriculture across Neolithic Europe, according to the authors of the study.

“Animal traction is an important innovation that may have had considerable implications for economic and social development during the Neolithic period, mainly in terms of increased output and subsequent wealth inequality,” they explained further.

They suggest that the ability to cultivate larger fields using animal traction may have emerged early on rather than as a later revolutionary development. The site's location in a significant alpine valley could have facilitated the rapid adoption and preservation of evidence of plough use. Any early analog traces in the vast European plains where Neolithic agriculture initially settled might have been erased by subsequent erosion and intense agricultural activity, reports LBV Magazine.

The archaeological team now plans to conduct additional excavations in similar alpine environments throughout Switzerland and Italy. This research aims to further investigate the origins of animal traction in agriculture and provide additional insights into the early agricultural practices of Neolithic societies.

Top image: Oxen and goat hoofprints found at the site, which were found alongside the oldest plough marks (top left) in Europe, are evidence that cattle domestication existed very early in the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture. Source: Nature.com; ARIA SA

By Sahir Pandey              

References

Carvajal, G. 2024.  Europe’s Oldest Plough Marks Discovered, Testifying the Use of Animals in Agriculture 7000 Years Ago. Available at: https://www.labrujulaverde.com/en/2024/03/europes-oldest-plough-marks-discovered-testifying-the-use-of-animals-in-agriculture-7000-years-ago/

Kayra, O. 2024.  Europe’s Oldest Plough Marks Discovered in Switzerland and Testifying the Use of Animals in Agriculture 7000 Years Ago. Available at: https://arkeonews.net/europes-oldest-plough-marks-discovered-in-switzerland-and-testifying-the-use-of-animals-in-agriculture-7000-years-ago/

Willingen, S., et al. 2024.  New evidence for prehistoric ploughing in Europe. Humanities Social Science Communications, 11 (372). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-024-02837-5

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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