Were there royal herds? Understanding herd management and mobility using isotopic characterizations of cattle tooth enamel from Early Dynastic Ur.

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McMahon, Augusta M 
O'Connell, Tamsin C 
Reade, Hazel 
Holmden, Chris 

During the third millennium BC, Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in modern Iraq-Syria), was dominated by the world's earliest cities and states, which were ruled by powerful elites. Ur, in present-day southern Iraq, was one of the largest and most important of these cities, and irrigation-based agriculture and large herds of domesticated animals were the twin mainstays of the economy and diet. Texts suggest that the societies of the Mesopotamian city-states were extremely hierarchical and underpinned by institutionalised and heavily-managed farming systems. Prevailing narratives suggest that the animal management strategies within these farming systems in the third millennium BC were homogenous. There have been few systematic science-based studies of human and animal diets, mobility, or other forms of human-animal interaction in Mesopotamia, but such approaches can inform understanding of past economies, including animal management, social hierarchies, diet and migration. Oxygen, carbon and strontium isotopic analysis of animal tooth enamel from both royal and private/non-royal burial contexts at Early Dynastic Ur (2900-2350 BC) indicate that a variety of herd management strategies and habitats were exploited. These data also suggest that there is no correlation between animal-management practices and the cattle found in royal or private/non-royal burial contexts. The results demonstrate considerable divergence between agro-pastoral models promoted by the state and the realities of day-to-day management practices. The data from Ur suggest that the animals exploited different plant and water sources, and that animals reared in similar ways ended up in different depositional contexts.


Funder: The University of Pennsylvania Museum

Funder: The Isaac Newton Trust Small Grant Fund

Funder: Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme (CHRGS), The University of Cambridge

Research Article, Biology and life sciences, Medicine and health sciences, Research and analysis methods, Earth sciences, Social sciences, Physical sciences
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PLoS One
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Public Library of Science (PLoS)
University of Saskatchewan (2278)
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2278-0018)