This is the first concrete evidence found in Finland of a goat dated back to the Neolithic Corded Ware period (in Finland ca. 2800-2300 BCE). The animal from more than four thousand years ago was identified by its fossilised hair, found in an archaeological soil sample.
The research finding tells about the mortuary practices of the Corded Ware culture. The soil sample under investigation originated in a grave structure discovered in the 1930s in Kauhava, western Finland. The grave and its perimeter were encircled by a layer of dark soil resembling the dimensions of an animal skin. Since the hairs were found in the sample collected from the feature in question, it can be assumed that they are connected with a goat skin placed in the grave.
The identification is based on images taken with a scanning electron microscope. The fibres included in these images were identified on the basis of their structure, typical to goat hair.
"Our study proves that completely new knowledge of our past can be gained by using microscopes to study organic material in advanced states of degradation. Now that we know to look for them, hairs have been found in other soil samples as well," explains Tuija Kirkinen.
In the light of these new findings, it is reasonable to assume that domestic animals and a herder identity have constituted a significant part of the belief system of the Corded Ware culture. This interpretation is also supported by objects made of domestic animal bones and pottery that might have been used for storing and drinking milk found in Corded Ware graves.
"Even though Corded Ware graves found elsewhere in Europe are generally better preserved, no equivalent evidence of skins placed in the grave have been found. As our findings show, the placement of the skin of an important domestic animal in the grave produces entirely new notions on the burial rituals and belief system of the Corded Ware culture," elaborates Marja Ahola.
Oldest animal hair found in Finland
From the perspective of Finnish prehistory, the finding supports the evidence of animal husbandry practised during the Corded Ware period. In the field of Finnish archaeology, it has long been assumed that people kept domestic animals also during the Corded Ware period. This conclusion is based on the fact that during the period, people often lived in meadow environments suited to animal husbandry. Milk residues have also been found in Corded Ware pottery. It has been difficult to prove the practice of animal husbandry, since in the acidic Finnish soil, unburnt bone is preserved only for about a thousand years. Therefore, Finland has little osseous material preserved from the Stone Age. The oldest domestic animal bones known here, for example, date back only to the later part of Stone Age in ca. 2200-1950 BCE.
"The hairs found in the Corded Ware grave in Kauhava are the oldest animal hairs found in Finland and the first evidence of goats. Our finding does indeed prove that goats were known already at that early period as far up north as Finland," says Krista Vajanto.
The study was conducted in cooperation between the discipline of archaeology at the University of Helsinki and the Aalto University Nanomicroscopy Center.
Ahola, M., Kirkinen, T., Vajanto, K. & Ruokolainen, J. 2017. On the scent of an animal skin: new evidence on Corded Ware mortuary practices in Northern Europe. Antiquity Vol 92, Issue 361, 118-131.
Marja Ahola and Tuija Kirkinen, University of Helsinki, Faculty of Arts, archaeology
Krista Vajanto and Janne Ruokolainen, Aalto University Nanomicroscopy Center