Goat Hair From 5,000 Years Ago Identified in Neolithic Finnish Grave

The acidic local soil has been unkind to organic remains, but the microscope shows that the marks in the Corded Ware-era grave were of a goat

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Preserved goat hair found in Stone Age Finland grave (left_, compared with a modern Finnish Landrace goat hair (right). Both images were taken with a scanning electron microscope
Preserved 5,000 year old goat hair found in Finnish graveCredit: Krista Vajanto & Tuija Kirkinen
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Strange marks noticed in a prehistoric Finnish grave dating back nearly 5,000 years have been identified as the remains of a goat pelt.

Based on electron microscope analysis of miraculously preserved hair, archaeologists from the University of Helsinki believe a goat skin had been laid in the grave, the Cambridge University publication Antiquity reported this week.

The grave is associated with “Corded Ware” culture, which began to spread around Europe around 3200 B.C.E., ultimately reaching most of the north of the continent before disappearing around 2300 B.C.E. The distinctive style, created by impressing string or rope onto wet clay for decorative purposes, has been found from the Volga River in the east to the Rhine River in the west, and in southern Sweden and Finland.

Corded Ware pottery culture evidently reached prehistoric Finland only hundreds of years after its advent, by around 2800 B.C.E. That’s also roughly the time of the earliest evidence of dairy farming there.

In fact the pelt bit is in fact the oldest-known remnant of domestic animal ever found there, said co-author Krista Vajanto. However, that doesn’t mean the Finns didn’t have domestic animals earlier.

“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,” observes the team: Finland, therefore, has very little bone preserved from the Stone Age.

So did the ancient Finns also husband the sheep and cow, or some other ungulate? Because of the paucity of remains, "aside from the goat in question, we do not know," explains coauthor Marja Ahola. The oldest domestic animal bones found in Finland date to the late Stone Age, around 2000 B.C.E. – many, many thousands of years after animal domestication began far to the south.

Genetic analysis indicates that the goat was first domesticated from the bezoar ibex in central Iran around 11,000 years ago, though it seems those first flocks of somewhat tamed beasts have gone extinct.

Goats in the snow, Golan Heights. Credit: Gil Eliahu

A second significant hub of domestication was apparently located in eastern Anatolia, Turkey, at around the same time – around 10,500 years ago. The practice apparently extended over centuries to the Zagros Mountains, a vast range along Iran’s western border that spreads into Turkey and Iraq.

In other words, going by the hair in the grave, it took around 5,000 years for goat domestication to reach Neolithic Finland – it may have arrived sooner, of course, but we just haven’t found the evidence.

With the arrival of distinctive Corded Ware techniques, the ancient Finns also transited from reliance mainly on hunting and fishing marine life to dairy farming, despite being snowed in for at least four months of the year, according to evidence presented in 2014.

Analyzing residue on clay pot fragments from around circa 3900 B.C.E., 3300 B.C.E. and 2500 B.C.E. showed the presence of milk fats on the most recent pieces. So, evidently Stone Age Finns were foddering and protecting domesticated animals, including the goat.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Why anybody would choose to live in such harsh climatic conditions is a good question, but the choice of goats for milk, meat and fur makes sense.

Goats can thrive in a wide range of environments: Feeding in an argan tree, MoroccoCredit: \ Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / N

Sheep are frail and not prone to prolific procreation. They are vulnerable to disease and environmental conditions. Goats are a hardy bunch, breeding wildly and thriving everywhere from snowy mountain scarps to savannah treetops. For these reasons, goats were the domestic animal of choice in the Middle East for thousands of years, with only the Canaanites living in the rich city of Hazor venturing beyond the goat to farm sheep – from which they made fine wool that they shipped internationally (by boat).

As for the discovery of the ancient goat fur in Finland, hair usually lasts longer than soft tissues, being made of a tough protein. But typically a year or two after burial, it will break down as well. Under sterile or otherwise special conditions or preservation, it can last for millennia, though, as we have seen from exceptional mummies in South America and North Africa.

In this case, the hair was found in a grave in Kauhava, western Finland. In fact, the grave, which contained sherds of a single Corded Ware vessel, Ahola says, was found in the 1930s. The grave and its perimeter were encircled by a layer of dark soil resembling the dimensions of an animal skin. Now the analysis indicates that a goat pelt had been placed with the body.

Corded Ware pottery has been found chiefly in the context of burials, so the goat hair is believed to be from the coat of an animal buried on or under a person. The identification of the type of animal was done by scanning electron microscopy. Different animal hairs look profoundly different at that resolution.

The ancient goat hair was definitely domestic type, Ahola explains: "The qualities we noted in the thicker ancient hairs (so-called ancient intermediate/guard hairs) – e.g., rounded/crenated tile-like scales and a biconcave or dumbbell-shaped cross-section – combined with the cornet-like structure of the thinner hairs of the material (so-called fine hairs), match only the domestic goat," she told Haaretz.

They didn't find enough material, only 21 fibers, to be able to tell how close this Finnish goat was to the original ibex, Ahola explains.

Archaeologists have also found objects made of domestic animal bones and pottery that might have been used for storing and drinking milk in graves from the Corded Ware period in Finland. No other Corded Ware graves in Europe have had pelts from goats or any other animal, says co-author Marja Ahola.

One reason Finland’s archaeologists always thought the Corded Ware people practiced animal husbandry is that they often lived in meadow environments. Then there were the milk fat residues in Corded Ware pottery.

Bones may decay fast in acid ground, but it seems that residue adsorbed onto clay can last a very long time.

Analysis of fat residue was even used to show that prehistoric hominins were eating elephants in Revadim, Israel, half a million years ago. In this case, the fat residue was detected on stone tools because somebody wanted to build a gas station and the Israel Antiquities Authority did a salvage excavation – as it always does when builders want to break fresh ground. People were also shown to have cooked plants in clay pots in Libya 10,000 years ago, again based on residue found on the clay fragments.

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