Transhumance: moving our understanding from low to high

Our researchers are increasing the understanding of historic pasture animal movement in the Western Alps

Transhumance

Understanding transhumance is key to developing its sustainability in the future.

A team from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology will be the first to undertake a region-wide study of ‘transhumance’ - the movement of animals from lowland to high-altitude pasture - in the Western Alps from Iron Age to Medieval times.

Dr Kevin Walsh, who is leading the project, says: “We know relatively little about the early development of the transhumant pastoral system that has shaped these enigmatic and iconic landscapes. Our understanding of what animals were exploited, and for what purpose, is also limited.

“These landscapes contribute to regional and national economies and cultures via the production of meat, cheese, wool, and related by-products. Today sheep bred for meat and dairy products dominate the southern alpine pastoral system, while cattle and milk production dominate the northern Alps. But it’s unlikely that this was always so. Understanding the evolution of this system is key to developing its sustainability today and in the future.”

Collaboration

The project is running in collaboration with colleagues both in the UK and Europe, including Dr. David Orton and Dr. Juliette Knockaert at the University of York, Professor Alistair Pike at Southampton University and international collaborators Florence Mocci, Dr Charline Giguet-Covex and Dr Sylvain Burri at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France.

The team will take a multi-disciplinary scientific approach, integrating archaeological, faunal and palaeoenvironmental archives, including ancient DNA (aDNA), in the search for the origins of long-distance transhumance in the Alps.

“The project will examine animal bones from lowland and high altitude sites from Provence, Rhone-Alpes (France), Val d'Aosta (Italy), Martigny (Switzerland)) and characterise the composition of flocks and herds with a range of scientific methods,” said Dr. Walsh.

“Using strontium and oxygen isotope measurements, we will identify animal movement for sheep and cattle and make inferences regarding the development of long-distance transhumance. The project will access faunal reports - scientific assessments of animal bone assemblages from archaeological sites - for all of the sites in the region. In parallel to this work, we will take sediment cores from four alpine lakes and study evidence for erosion, vegetation change, via the study of pollen and aDNA. Also, the aDNA will permit the precise identification of the appearance of domesticated animals.”

The AHRC-funded project is titled "Protohistoric to Medieval pastoralism in the Western Alps: The origins and development of long-distance transhumance", It started in January 2018 and will be completed in late 2020.

The text of this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. You're free to republish it, as long as you link back to this page and credit us.

Understanding the evolution of this system is key to developing its sustainability today and in the future.

Dr. Kevin Walsh

This project is run in collaboration with colleagues both in the UK and Europe, including Dr. David Orton and Dr. Juliette Knockaert at the University of York, Professor Alistair Pike at Southampton University and Florence Mocci, Dr Charline Giguet-Covex and Dr Sylvain Burri at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France.