DS08 - Sociétés innovantes, intégrantes et adaptatives

First zootechnical innovations in Southwest Asian societies (5th-1rst Millennia B.C.): origin and development of sheep breeds – EVOSHEEP

EvoSheep: The archaeology of sheep farming over the past 8000 years in Southwest Asia

From an early stage, research focused on Neolithization and the domestication of plants and animals and the fields of archaeozoology and molecular biochemistry significantly enhanced our knowledge of the origins of domestication . However, few investigations have been conducted up until now on the development of domestic races and the zootechnical practices of the first livestock farmers.

The origin of zootechnical innovations and the development of sheep breeds between the sixth and first millennia BC

Sheep have played a major role in the development of Eastern societies since their domestication, in geographic regions characterised by great geo-climatic diversity. Today, sheep are found on every continent in the form of distinct breeds with specific characteristics. The EvoSheep project aims to document how societies in the Near and Middle East developed sheep farming and how this has influenced their history. One of the challenges is to identify the emergence of sheep breeds during the complexification of Near and Middle Eastern societies, while the other is to distinguish the role of farming practices and environmental factors in the biological and physical modifications of sheep in comparison to their wild ancestors. A series of themes are addressed 1) the evaluation of environmental and anthropogenic factors in the initial diversification of sheep types, 2) the contribution of breeders to modelling sheep in order to enhance milk and fleece production, 3) sheep varieties after the Neolithic in Southwest Asia, 4) the appearance of phenotypic characteristics (fat tail, woolly fleece, pigmentation, disappearance of moulting). The key question is the relationship between the mastery of sheep farming associated with zootechnical knowledge and the establishment of new economic and socio-cultural systems (urbanisation, development of city-states, expansion of empires). Based on the study of archaeological faunas, EvoSheep proposes an original approach by introducing data from cuneiform sources - which is unprecedented in this field - and by drawing on recent methodological advances in archaeozoology and palaeogenetics.

The scientific and technical aim of the project is to bring together different disciplines and methods to understand the emergence of agronomic breeds. The archaeozoological approach is based on the study of faunas from sites in the Near East (Syria, Lebanon), Anatolia (Turkey), the Middle East (Iran) and the Southern Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan), dating from the end of the Neolithic to the end of the Bronze Age. The project is driven by the pooling of data by the archaeozoologists in the consortium, some of which have never been used before. The aim is to assess the role of sheep in farming economies and to identify changes in sheep size throughout time and space. The archaeo-historical approach exploits Mesopotamian iconographic and epigraphic documentation to gather information on sheep farms and the physical characteristics of sheep in order to identify the different varieties of sheep and date their presence. Geometric morphometry methods (GMM) are being explored on certain bones (petrous bones, talus and humerus) in an attempt to distinguish wild forms from populations of domestic sheep. Genetic analyses aim to identify key genes in the process of sheep domestication and the genomic regions associated with important evolutionary and economic phenotypic traits (fleece, horns, colour, fat tail). Genomic and proteomic analyses have been conducted to verify taxonomic identifications based on bone anatomy. A series of 14C analyses have consolidated the chrono-cultural framework. A modern osteological repository has been set up using sheep of known breeds from Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia for methodological developments in morphometry. Finally, an open-access, scalable online database has been developed to store raw archaeozoological and biometric data, as well as data from texts and images. It is accompanied by an interactive application for statistical exploration and data interpretation.

The expansion of sheep farming in northern Mesopotamia dates back to the fourth millennium BC, in a context of pre-urbanisation. From the third millennium BC onwards, sheep were cross-fertilised, with imports from different regions. The diversification of fleeces, coat colours and fat tails is attested as early as 2500 BC. Zootechnical innovations included the practice of cross-breeding of domestic ewes with wild mouflons, which was of unknown age up until now. Agronomic breeds appeared well after the dispersal of sheep by humans from the core of domestication in the Near East, and followed their own evolutionary trajectory, as shown by the different morphometric characteristics of the Eastern and African breeds in the corpus. Key genomic regions associated with important evolutionary and economic phenotypic traits (fleece, horns, colour, fat tail) have been identified. Thirty-five new complete genomes of sheep from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods have been generated, representing an exceptional quantity for particularly arid regions that are not very conducive to the preservation of ancient DNA. Lastly, new biometric references were created during the project for indigenous Eastern and African breeds, which are more satisfactory than those for European breeds.

The project has generated a large amount of archaeozoological data, in geometric morphometry and genomics. The geometric morphometry protocols developed and validated as part of EvoSheep can be reused in other archaeozoological studies and in animal biometry in general. Similarly, the repository of modern breeds and metric data for sheep will be available to the archaeozoology community.

The exceptional series of 3D models produced for GMM analyses can be used for further research. GMM research on the talus has already inspired an ambitious PhD project in Fundamental and Applied Sciences at Côte d'Azur University (M. Cornelli, CEPAM; tutor M. Vuillien, CEPAM), co-directed with Lyon 2 University (E. Vila, Archéorient). The aim of the PhD is to develop 'Machine Learning' solutions to capitalise on the fine categorisation proficiencies of artificial intelligence in the treatment of archaeozoological problems (shape recognition of Caprinae bones).

The database created as part of the EvoSheep project, combined with a Shiny application and designed to be scalable, provides an attractive platform for other archaeozoologists to explore, analyse and interpret their data in depth. A new 'Plant remains' (archaeobotany) section will shortly be integrated into the database, developed as part of the ANR SWEED programme (PI M. Tengberg, AASPE and Archéorient partner).

The EvoSheep research results have led to five publications in international peer-reviewed journals and one book chapter, two sessions and seventeen communications at international conferences, four STI (scientific and technical information) articles, three workshops and three seminars.

EVOSHEEP proposes to document how Near Eastern and Middle Eastern societies developed sheep farming and how this influenced their history using a multidisciplinary approach drawing on evidence from different sources: archaeozoology, philology, iconography and paleogenetics from a wide temporal (6000-1000 BC) and geographic scale (Near East and Middle East, the Caucasus). This approach conducted on ancient breeds will be completed by work on modern breeds (sheep with hairy fleece or hair from Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia) to provide new biometric and genetic reference records more adequate than European races for further scientific research. The originality of EVOSHEEP is to combine morphometric and genetic data from ancient and modern breeds to document the pace of the emergence of sheep breed in the course of the complexification of Near and Middle Eastern societies.

Project coordination

Emmanuelle VILA (Archéorient - Environnements et sociétés de l'Orient ancien)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Smurfit Institute of Genetics
AMIS Anthropologie moléculaire et imagerie de synthèse
Archéozoologie - CNRS Archéozoologie, archéobotanique
Archéorient - CNRS Archéorient - Environnements et sociétés de l'Orient ancien
LECA - UGA Laboratoire d'écologie alpine

Help of the ANR 558,608 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: March 2018 - 48 Months

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