FWF-Project: The Neolithic Agricultural Regime in the Inner Alps (Grant No.: P21129-G19)



A.Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Klaus Oeggl 


Daniela Festi

University of Innsbruck
Institute of Botany
Sternwartestraße 15
A-6020 Innsbruck

Image Transhumance 

Transhumance and alpine summer farming as potential subsistence strategy in the Alps during prehistory (3 MB)

In the Alps seasonal transhumance and alpine summer farming are traditional practices that still play a great role in dairy farming. The origin and development of this ancestral practice/subsistence strategy continues fascinating scientists of diverse disciplines all over the world (anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, geographers, archaeozoologists, archaeobotanists etc.), and therefore a great effort has been made to investigate this topic from different perspectives. Nevertheless, there are still some basic open-questions that need to find a proper answer, such as: when did vertical transhumance and alpine summer farming begin? What factors triggered the onset of this form of transhumant pastoralism?

In the frame of the research on the Neolithic Alpine Iceman (dated back to 3300-3100 yr cal BC) it has been suggested that in the Austrian-Italian Alps the practice of transhumance had already started more than 6000 years ago (Bortenschlager 2000), and that the Iceman himself was eventually involved in it (Spindler 2003). This assumption is based on palynological evidences from peat-bogs located in the vicinity of the Iceman discovery site in the Austrian Alps, where a significant increase of pasture indicators has been recorded at about 4400 yr cal BC (Bortenschlager 2000). Since no coeval settlements are known on the Austrian side, it has been argued that there must have been a transhumance across the main alpine ridge (Bortenschlager 2000). On the Italian side indeed, contemporaneous valley settlements exist in the Vinschgau Valley, where the domicile of the Iceman is assumed (Müller et al. 2003; Oeggl 2000, 2001). However, this hypothesis of Alpine transhumance origin is still controversial and, for the moment, it is not supported by any kind of archaeological evidence.

Starting from this background the aim of our research is to detect the occurrence of transhumance and alpine summer farming during the Neolithic in the Austrian-Italian Alps using an interdisciplinary and multi-proxy approach. To begin with, we need to define clearly what we mean with the terms transhumance and alpine summer farming. The etymology of the word transhumance is still unsolved. The simple translation from the Latin words (trans= across and humus= ground) is not scientifically accepted. In this case study it refers to the vertical movement of the livestock from the valley to the higher altitudes at the beginning of the summer, and their consequent moving back for the wintertime (Arnold and Greenfield 2006). This implies the presence of a stable valley settlement based on an agro-pastoral economy, where the animal owners give a part of their livestock to a common shepherd that brings it up to the summer pastures (Spindler 2003). The aim of transhumance is merely meat production (Grass 1980); no production of milk and milk products is implied. This movement of a part of the livestock is especially needed in the mountain regions where there is a limited space for agriculture in the valley. The animals must, therefore, be moved away during the time of the year where space for agriculture is needed, which means the summer season. In this sense transhumance is a subsistence strategy that aims to exploit the spatial distribution of the natural resources within a limited space. Having said that, it is clear that we are here speaking about a short-distance transhumance, or intra-regional transhumance, where the traveled distance might go from a few km up to 40-50 km at the most, remaining anyhow internal to the home-territory of the community (Cleary-Delano 1990). Finally, an animal owner needs to have very good reasons to take the decision to move his livestock to feed it, and he will eventually move it as close as possible to the home village. Transhumance is, indeed, costly: in terms of time, labor, animal form, and eventually in term of loss of beasts (Cleary-Delano 1990). On the other hand, the origin of the alpine summer farming (Almwirtschaft) tradition has its roots in the practice of transhumance. Indeed, it is considered as the evolution of this practice due to the intensification of agriculture in the valley bottoms (Jacobeit 1961) and the beginning of dairying. Alpine summer farming is directly connected to an intense dairying activity (Spindler 2003). The livestock is taken to the mountain for the summer season where secondary milk products are prepared and stored for the winter time. The summer farming implies thereby the presence of seasonal constructions meant for hosting humans and animals, such as a refuge, a dairy farm shelter (Alm), and eventually a stable. It includes as well the hay making practice, which allows at the same time to gather and store winter fodder for the livestock and to avoid reafforestation of the pastures. Indeed, the long-standing use of the alpine grasslands for pastures and for hay making is an important factor that shaped the alpine landscape keeping ample regions of naturally forested areas free from wood.

However, both vertical transhumance and alpine summer farming imply a spatial exploitation of two environments: the valley bottoms and the uplands. Specific ecological, climatic and socio-economical conditions need to take place in order to trigger the need for transhumance/alpine summer farming: the scarcity of pastures near the home village and the simultaneous availability of pastures in the uplands; periods of severe summer drought that affects the valley pastures forcing the animal owners to move their livestock up to the mountain in order to feed it on fresh pastures; a high human and livestock demographic pressure in the valley, and finally a high agricultural pressure near the village, that leaves no free areas for grazing.

Thus, we use the Austrian-Italian Alps, in particular the Vinschgau Valley, as a case study to investigate the occurrence of vertical transhumance since the Neolithic, taking into account all the possible causes that might have played a role in its emergence. The study focuses on a multi-proxy reconstruction of the former conditions characterizing the Vinschgau’s valley floor and uplands since the Neolithic. The study of the Copper Aged dwelling site of Latsch will provide an insight of the life in the valley during the Iceman´s life time: macro-remains will supply information about the agricultural system; macro-charcoal fragments will allow to reconstruct the former vegetation and the use of wood within the settlement; the faunal remains will give a picture of the composition of livestock and the importance of animal husbandry; finally, the archaeological findings will furnish details about other activities carried out in the settlement. On the other hand, in the uplands the study will focus on the search for prehistoric stone structures connected with pastoralism by means of archaeological excavations, as well as conducting pollen and fire history analyses on four mires and one lake situated on the traditional transhumance route going from the Vinschgau valley floor up to the Iceman discovery site. The research has started in November 2008 and preliminary results will be published soon.


Reference List

Arnold and Greenfield 2006. The Origins of Transhumant Pastoralim in Temperate southeastern Europe. BAR International Series 1538

Bortenschlager S. 2000: The Iceman’s environment. In: Bortenschlager S. & Oeggl K. (eds.): The Iceman and his natural environment. The Man in the Ice Vol. 4:11-24.

Cleary M.C., Delano Smith C. 1990: Transhumance reviewed: past and present practices in France and Italy. In: Archeologia della pastorizia nell´Europa meridionale. Rivista di Studi Liguri, anno LVI: 21-38.

Grass N. 1980: Die Almwirtschaft in der Urzeit und im Mittelalter. Abh. Akad. Wiss. Göttingen, phil.-hist. Kl. 3te Folge, 116: 241- 279.

Jocobeit W. 1961: Schafhaltung und Schäfer in Zentraleuropa bis zum Beginn des 20.Jahrhunderts. Deutsch Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Veröffentlichungen des Institutes für Deutsche Volkskunde,25, Berlin.

Müller W., Fircke H., Halliday A. N., Mc Culloch M.T., Wratho J. 2003: Origin and migration of the alpine Iceman. Science 302: 862-866

Oeggl K. 2000: The Diet of the Iceman. in: Bortenschlager S. & Oeggl K. (eds.): The Iceman and his natural environment. The Man in the Ice Vol. 4: 89-115

Oeggl K. 2001: Pollen Analyses of the Iceman´s Colon Content. In: Goodman D. K. & Clarke R. T. (eds.): Proceedings of the IX International Palynological Congress Houston, Texas, U.S.A., 1996: 511-516

Spindler K. 2003: Transhumanz. Preistoria Alpina 39: 219-225.

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