Pathological evidence reveals cattle traction in North China by the early second millennium BC

16 Apr 2018

The use of cattle labour in antiquity is a worldwide well-discussed topic among researchers as it can shed light on the possible development trajectories of our communities over the past several millennia. Zooarchaeology can play a vital role in illuminating the history of cattle traction through observed pathologies on cattle bones linked to traction activity. Systemic zooarchaeological investigation is still underdeveloped in China, one of the likely early beneficiaries of animal labour exploitation in the world. Here, we apply the pathological index (PI) method, first developed by Bartosiewicz et al. on European assemblages, to Chinese Bronze Age cattle bones. Our results first confirm the wide applicability of the PI method with the involvement of Chinese control samples, which holds the potential to be applied as an effective tool in a larger geographical region. Our results also confirm the importance of cattle traction for the Late Shang states ( c. 1300–1046 BC) as previously proposed on the basis of disputed interpretations of oracle bone inscriptions as showing cattle ploughing, but also show that light cattle traction practices likely developed in China in the Bronze Age Erlitou ( c. 1750–1530 BC) and Early Shang ( c. 1600–1300 BC) periods. Cattle traction use in the Chinese Bronze Age may have facilitated the introduction and subsequent cultivation in China of wheat, an exotic cereal.