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CENTAURO: Equid introduction, hybridisation and agricultural intensification in the Ebro valley from the late Neolithic to the Iron Age

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  • Principal Investigator: Ariadna Nieto Espinet (Grup d'Investigació Prehistòrica (GIP), Departament d'Història, Universitat de Lleida). Equids (horses, donkeys and mules) are highly versatile species. Current research suggests that the first domestic horses appeared in the Eurasian steppes about 5,000 years ago (Outram et al. 2009). Since then, and throughout recent history, equids have undertaken multiple tasks. Equids also have a great amount of symbolism, as they were not only working animals, but elements of prestige and essential companions both in and after life. Throughout both contemporary and historical times, equids have contributed to the development of rural economies as essential elements of sustainable and better-interconnected agricultural systems. Was this also the case of the pre-Roman communities of the Ebro Valley? The moment when equids were introduced and how they integrated into the local agricultural systems of the NE of Iberia remain still largely unknown. Was their introduction a response to new socio-economic needs or a stimulus which made a decisive contribution in the processes of expansion, development and economic integration which characterised the outset of the Iron Age? CENTAURO will assess the impact of domestication and animal traction with equids on the development of human economies in different historical periods. This is an area which has provided exceptional and unique archaeological finds evidencing an intense interaction between human and equines during the Late Neolithic, and incipient horse breeding in the Early Iron Age in the framework of the earliest cases of urbanism and fortified centres of power. This project intends to study equid bone remains from different archaeological sites in the NE of Iberia (present-day Aragon and Catalonia) between the Late Neolithic to the Iberian period (2900 cal BC - 200 BC). Therefore, through an innovative and multidisciplinary approach, CENTAURO will analyse the introduction processes of the donkey together with changes in the management, diet and mobility patterns of equids throughout a wide timeframe and territorial scale. The sites dated from the Late Neolithic to Iron Age preserve the highest number of equid remains, but analysing the Late Neolithic and the Middle Bronze Age sites will allow us to assess the real impact of influences from elsewhere in the Mediterranean on the cultural systems of the Ebro Valley. The feasibility and impact of the project benefits from the support and a close collaboration between archaeologists, biologists, farmers, breeders and veterinarians specialising in equid. An understanding of the impact of the domestication and management of equids on the development and expansion of prehistoric economic and cultural systems in NE Iberia will valorise the traditional economic uses of equines, today highly threatened. This is a challenge for public administrations and breeders who, in recent years, have focused their efforts on creating conservation programmes within the framework of national and international agreements (BOE-A-2019-2859). This project will valorise one of the most vital allies of rural societies, and will help to reinforce livestock sustainability by prioritising local equine breeds compatible with local ecosystems.


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