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The Effects of Environmental Change on Wild and Domestic Animal Populations in Roman Antiquity

Michael MacKinnon

University of Winnipeg

Animals variously mirror both nature and culture in many aspects. Natural environments provide a habitat to situate animals and ultimately supply the resources necessary to sustain them. Cultural agents modify and manipulate these animals through husbandry, breeding, culling, hunting and other measures linked to the animal use and exploitation. Nature and culture further interact to affect animals as contributors to climate and landscape change. Zooarchaeology provides primary evidence to track this integrated dynamic among animals, culture and environment. Drawing upon this extensive zooarchaeological dataset, this paper examines several aspects of how domestic and wild animals were affected by changing environmental conditions during Roman antiquity, focusing particularly upon the Roman Mediterranean context. Although wild animals are not free of cultural manipulation, they are often more critically affected by shifts in habitat destruction, notably by deforestation and environmental degradation. Available zooarchaeological data record a noticeable decline in wild animals at Roman sites coincident with proposed episodes of deforestation and agricultural expansion. The effects, however, are not felt equally across the Mediterranean. Southern Italy, for example, registers as especially vulnerable, with augmented declines in the frequency of wild animals during the Republic. Imperial and late antique Roman Spain, by contrast, exhibits more resilience in this respect, even during phases where deforestation and agricultural expansion were fairly rampant. Overall, zooarchaeological data underscore a wider level of regional variation that exists in terms of the responses of wild animals to environmental parameters than has been explored previously.

The situation regarding domestic animals and environmental change in Roman antiquity is equally complex. Zooarchaeological data offer two key components involving domestic animals to frame discussion. First, at one level, variation in the frequency of domestic stock, such as cattle, sheep, goat and pig in the zooarchaeological record can act as means to assess both adaptive and maladaptive measures on landscape use. As animals better adapted to scrubbier conditions, for example, goats increase in frequency fairly universally across the wider Mediterranean during late antiquity, coincident with phases of marked landscape degradation. Second, manipulation of domestic animals to encourage breeding improvements to combat environmental challenges offers another measure of adaptation. Here, the zooarchaeological database registers crucial information, most notably an augmentation of animal size during phases of environmental prosperity, such as the Imperial period, but a reduction in many of these aspects during periods of environmental challenge, such as late antiquity.

Session/Panel Title

Responses to Environmental Change in the Roman World

Session/Paper Number

80.1

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