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Old bones of Nordic mountain cattle are the subject of Auli Bläuer’s research in the cross-disciplinary project “3MC – Nordic Mountain Cattle”, which is led by NordGen.

In the picture above, Auli Bläuer (left) and Lars Backman from Norrbotten's museum sample cattle bones to determine their age using the carbon-14 method. Photo: Emma Boman.

In archaeological excavations, ancient cattle and animals are fragile fragments of bones, often difficult to identify. To an osteologist, an expert on bones, they are sources of information on the coexistence of man and animals, as they reveal major changes in society that took place thousands of years back in time.

Nordic mountain cattle are the subject of Bläuer’s research for the cross-disciplinary project “3MC – Nordic Mountain Cattle”, which is led by NordGen. As an expert in archaeological osteology, Bläuer is part of a research team consisting of cultural researchers, geneticists, and game developers working together to gather and disseminate knowledge about the common origins and cultural heritage of the Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish mountain cattle breeds. The aim is to raise awareness for more sustainable use of the now threatened breeds that are at risk of being outcompeted by more commercial breeds.


When Auli Bläuer talks about her research material, the listener gets to travel through time. In a flash, we travel

 from the Iron Age to modern times and see the great impact Sweden had on the medieval agriculture of Finland. Funded by the Academy of Finland, Bläuer has been able to study the development and changes in animal husbandry throughout the Baltic Sea area.


New Information

Let's take a moment to walk in the tracks of draught oxen. They kept the wheels of the early Nordic agriculture spinning and almost all the heavy work was carried out with their help. Bläuer says that while working on her dissertation, she paid attention to the ethnographical sources that showed Finland and Estonia had a common ox culture. Later on, studies with Estonian zooarchaeologist Eve Rannamäki revealed a lot of new information about oxen, such as the age at which the animals were castrated. “If an ox is castrated as a calf, it will grow into a long-legged castrate. In an adult animal, this change is not seen. In the beginning of the Middle Ages, oxen were castrated as adult animals in Finland, like in Estonia. At the end of the Middle Ages, from 1550 onwards, the method of castrating calves spread from Sweden throughout Finland. In other words, our bone material clearly shows a societal change when Finland becomes part of Sweden, Bläuer described. Studies also show how cows become important domestic animals for Finns in the Middle Ages. And the further north you go, the more important the cattle are. "In Sweden, the same trend can be seen already towards the end of the Iron Age. The special feature of Finland is that agriculture has always been on the verge here, and winter feeding of cattle has been a big challenge", Bläuer said.

Animals in Culture

There are few experts in archaeo-osteology. Bläuer acquired her expertise at Stockholm University. "This field of study came about as early as the end of the 19th century. Veterinarians identified the bones found in the excavations for archaeologists", Bläuer said. Gradually, osteology has developed into an independent field of research. "The work is multidisciplinary, combining natural sciences and archaeology. What is fascinating is that we work with animals and the animal is physically present but in a completely cultural context. Through human traces, we see whether the animal has been eaten or used in some other way, for example for the manufacture of objects or for rituals." Even small bones are important research objects that can reveal information. "They can be used to study the size of an animal, how livestock farming has changed over the millennia, or from a humanistic point of view, how human beliefs are reflected at different times. It is possible to make radiocarbon timings and isolate DNA", Bläuer explained.

Where did the Northern Finncattle come from?

In her research, Auli Bläuer has always challenged the prevailing, often incorrect, notions of history. This is also how the Nordic Mountain Cattle project began when Bläuer and project manager Mervi Honkatukia put their heads together to discuss the origins of the Northern Finncattle. Recently, Bläuer had also worked on a study to identify milk fat residues from 2000-year-old pot fragments found off the coast of Norway. "At that time, there was no sign of milk being used in Lapland. Hunter-gatherer culture prevailed there, and livestock farming began much later in inland areas of Sweden and Finland." According to the traditional view, agriculture spread from south to north. However, Northern Finncattle is related to other Finnish native herds as well as mountain herds in Norway and Sweden. "If agriculture did spread from the south, the northern herds should not be significantly related to each other", Bläuer pointed out. Historical sources reviewed by the researchers also indicate that the most common colour of Nordic cattle has apparently been brown, but there are references to white, polled animals in the north. "It seems that there were white, polled cows in Finland before the systematic breeding and pedigree. The same seems true for Sweden. However, these are just scattered citations, and that’s why we set out to explore the issue in depth in the Nordic Mountain Cattle project".

Man's place in time

In the very near future, interesting research results are expected when the bone material collected by Bläuer from museums in Sweden, Norway and Finland can be analysed. Ancient DNA isolated from bones is used to find out the history and origin of Northern Finncattle. And how does an archaeologist see the present and our relationship with animals? “We do not always see our own place in history. In western societies, we now live in an exceptional moment where man can live independently of animals, without products of animal origin, or even without any contact with animals. From an archaeologist’s perspective, this is something completely new. And the change has been very rapid. Until now, animals have penetrated cultures and human communities in a drastically different way than we see today”, Bläuer said. Therefore, research on bones continues. In order to move forward in multidisciplinary farm animal research. And to help in their conservation.

The project is funded with a grant from EU Interreg Nord and Länsstyrelsen Norrbotten 2019-2022 and has 5 Nordic partners. NordGen is the coordinator for the project as well as responsible for investigating pedigree and population kinship, dissemination of results and implementation of applications. NordGen will also be responsible for establishing the network of preservers.