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Excavations in Switzerland reveal animal traction in early Neolithic Europe

at the Anciens Arsenaux site in Sion, Switzerland, archaeologists unearthed a groundbreaking discovery that reshapes our understanding of early agricultural practices. Contrary to previous beliefs, the findings unveil a pioneering use of animal traction in plow , pushing back the timeline of this technological innovation by nearly a millennium.

Nestled within the picturesque landscape of Sion, the Anciens Arsenaux site sits on the fertile alluvial cone of the Sionne, a vital Alpine torrent that courses through the town before merging with the Rhône. The excavation, conducted in 2017 for the Valais Cantonal Archives, uncovered layers of human occupation juxtaposed with extensive alluvial deposits, spanning the from approximately 5200 to 3500 BCE.

The significance of the alluvial deposits cannot be overstated, as they played a pivotal role in preserving the plow marks. Unlike many archaeological remnants susceptible to erosion or agricultural disturbances, the furrows in Sion endured thanks to the swift sedimentation of the surrounding stream, encapsulating the impressions within the soil layers.

The revelation of parallel furrows and hoofprints at the site offers compelling evidence of plow-like tools pulled by domesticated cattle or oxen during the early Neolithic period. This discovery challenges prior assumptions, which posited northern Germany and Denmark as the epicenters of early animal traction in European agriculture, dating back approximately 3,700 years.

The plough marks of groups 364, 65, 500 and 499 from the Anciens Arsenaux excavations. Credit: ARIA SA / S. van Willigen et al. / Humanities and social sciences communications

of organic materials meticulously extracted from above and below the soil disturbances provided conclusive evidence of the plow marks' antiquity. The findings suggest that animal traction in agriculture emerged concurrently with the advent of agriculture itself, representing a pivotal innovation that revolutionized and societal dynamics.

The implications of these findings extend beyond technological innovation, reshaping our understanding of agricultural intensification and its societal repercussions during the Neolithic expansion across Europe. The ability to cultivate larger fields with animal traction likely fueled economic stratification and social complexity, challenging conventional narratives about the pace and trajectory of agricultural development.

The unique alpine of Sion may have played a crucial role in preserving evidence of early plow use, offering fertile ground for future explorations into the origins of animal traction in agriculture. The plans to extend their investigations to similar alpine settings throughout Switzerland and Italy, seeking to unravel the complexities of early agrarian practices across the region.

The research was published in Nature.