Ramla, Palestine, 1938.
Ramla, Palestine, 1938.

A recent study by a team of scientists and archaeologists from the Universities of York and Bristol, together with colleagues from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, have reported evidence of dairy production and processing in northern Mediterranean farming communities from Neolithic times. The identification of milk and bovine carcass fats in over 500 pottery vessels, as well as a study of faunal remains for slaughter patterns, at over 82 sites from the 7th-5th millennia BCE suggests that dairy farming was an important (if localised) element within farming communities at this time. The report helps to provide a clearer picture of the place and role of cattle exploitation in Neolithic Mediterranean farming and, although the research is centred on northern sites, it could strengthen the case for a mixed agricultural economy in the southern Levant.

Damascus cow (modern) native to Syria. Image: http://www.krankykids.com/cows/mydailycow_alphabetical/A.html
Damascus cow (modern) native to Syria. Image: from My Daily Cow at krankykids.com

The traditional view that the Israelite nation emerged from nomadic tribes has recently been challenged by numerous scholars (for example see, Khazanov, 1983; Hiebert, 1996; Borowski, 1998; Sasson, 2008). Anthropological and archaeological evidence has refused to sit easily with the old tripartite, cultural-evolutionary model that premeates so much of biblical studies. This 18th/19th century theory (championed by scholars such as Wellhausen, Alt, von Rad and Noth) contends that human societies progress in a linear manner through three distinct phases: Hunter-gatherer > nomadic pastoralism > sedentary (agrarian) farming. The references to cattle (בָּקָר – ba.qar; ) in early strata Hebrew texts – particularly those relating to the Patriarchal History – indicate a close association with its past (in the form of cultural aetiology) and the husbandry of cattle. Even the figure who traditionally  has been most equated with nomadism (Abraham) is described as owning cattle (for example, Gen 15:9-10; 18:7-8; 21:27; 24:35).

Cattle require resource rich environments. Furthermore, unlike caprids (goats and sheep), they are incapable of travelling the distances normally needed for pastoral nomadism, with their grazing area restricted to a radius of 8-16 km from water which is less than half that managed by caprids (Borowski, 1998:74; Sasson, 2008:42). This distance is even shorter during hot, dry seasons.  Sasson (2008:42) also notes that, unlike caprids, cows are forced to stand still while grazing which further severely hinders the mobility needed to sustain a nomadic economy. References within the Hebrew Bible to ownership of cattle by the, supposedly nomadic, patriarchs points to a much more sedentary lifestyle.

Of all the animals attributed to Israel’s ancestors, cattle are the clearest indicator of a sedentary society.

Hiebert (1996:92)

Ploughing in the Plain of Jezreel (c.1925). Image: Bible Archaeology.
Ploughing in the Plain of Jezreel (c.1925). Image: Bible Archaeology.

The presence of cattle within ancient Israel has long been attested archaeologically. Sasson’s (2008:122 ) comparative analysis of faunal remains across 70 sites (covering differing geographical terrains and rural/urban settlement types from early Bronze Age to 1970s) indicates that, on average, cattle husbandry has never exceeded 20% of the entire livestock. In less resource-rich regions (notably the hill and desert country of the southern Levant), the average was closer to just 15%. Borowski (1998:75) argues that although milk and dung were important factors in their domestication, their lack of wool/hair meant that their other useful by-products (meat, hide, etc.) were only available after slaughter.

The report highlights the use of milk and dairy products that, ostensibly, would make the ownership of cattle highly prized. Under optimum conditions, cattle are capable of producing milk in much greater quantities than either sheep or goats. Sasson (2008:112-114) notes that, although much less protein rich than ewe of goats’ milk, on average, a cow can produce approx 450 litres of milk per year. This can be contrasted with a single ewe’s yield of only 50 l/yr and a goat’s yield of 75 l/yr. Furthermore cows are capable of producing much more meat; one animal can produce 120kg of usable meat, compared with the 25kg per sheep and 17.5 kg per goat. However, they are extremely reliant on scarce resources and could endanger sparse ecological resources that could more efficiently be used for the rearing of goats and sheep. Consequently, in this less resource-rich environment (the biblical Canaan), cattle tended to be kept in small numbers and principally used for agrarian work (ploughing, pulling carts, etc.) (Sasson, 2008:44-45).

[Cattle] are primarily raised in the hill country as draft animals, being used to plow (sic) the fields for the production of grain. Thus their high profile among the ancestor’s possessions most likely reflects an economy involved in intensive cultivation.

Hiebert (1998:92)

Hiebert’s contention is sustained by Sasson’s (2008) evidence for early subsistence, mixed-farming economies. Such economies were based on a balance between pastoralism, based on transhumance (fixed seasonal patterns of movement around a permanent home-site) rather than nomadism, and sedentary, agrarian cultivation.

Therefore the low proportion of cattle (ca. 15%) in many southern Levantine sites was aimed at sustaining the equilibrium between the survival subsistence strategy and the demand for plow (sic) beasts.

Sasson (2008:122)

Although relating to more northerly sites, the above report, identifying the exploitation of cattle, particularly for their milk, substantiates the claim for (very) early sedentary, subsistence, mixed-farming economies (Neolithic). The report identified that this was localised, but, nevertheless, the development of technologies to produce dairy products points to a trend towards the establishment of more permanent farming communities. Whilst it is accepted that the less ecologically resource-rich locations of the southern Levant might have provided a barrier to such dairy farming/production (see Sasson, 2008), the report’s findings provide valuable clues to the early farming communities within the Canaanite region and lends further support to their more sedentary roots.


Borowski, O. (1998) Every Living Thing: Daily use of animals in ancient Israel. Walnut Creek: Altimira Press.

Hiebert, T. (1996) The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and religion in early Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Khazanov, A.M. (1983) Nomads and the Outside World. J. Crookenden (trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sasson, A. (2008). Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A zooachaeological perspective on livestock exploitation, herd management and economic strategies. London: Routledge.

Spiteri, C.D., Gillis, R.E., Roffet-Salque, M., Navarro, L.C., Guilaine, J., Manen, C., Muntani, I.M., Segui, M.S., Urem-Ktsou, D., Whelton, H.L., Craig, O.E., Vigne, J-D., Evershed, R.P. (2016) ‘Regional asynchronicity in dairy production and processing in early farming communities of the northern Mediterranean.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Published ahead of print November 14, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1607810113


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