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Ovine origins and diversity in north-eastern Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - OVinE (Ovine origins and diversity in north-eastern Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-05-01 to 2019-04-30

Sheep (Ovis aries) is one of the most important and widely distributed domestic species in the world, having as many as 11,000 years of history alongside humans. Sheep are an important part of global production and have a vast effect on our economy and culture – both today, but also in the past. In Estonia – the main study region for the MSCA project OVinE – past sheep herding practices have had a major impact on local animal husbandry. According to archaeological and historical evidence, sheep in that region have been utilised mainly for wool and meat for the last 3000 years, at least since the Late Bronze Age. Most of the information regarding meat consumption, bone craft and herd structure has come from the faunal assemblages, while wool production has mostly been reflected through archaeological textile finds. Additionally, ancient DNA studies have revealed the continuity of the maternal lineages over millennia, as presented in the previous works by Dr. Rannamäe.

Today, sheep husbandry in Estonia is not as relevant as within the global context, and is still recovering from a significant decline that occurred in the 20th century. Nevertheless, despite the rapid decrease in the number of sheep and extensive crossbreeding during the Soviet era, the aboriginal sheep in Estonia – now named the Kihnu native sheep breed – has persevered. Although vital to diversity and numbers, the acknowledgement of the native breed was under question for a long time, and although now officially approved, an “endangered” status has still not been granted. As rare and native breeds represent an irreplaceable resource for genetic diversity (prolificacy, resistance to parasites and diseases), are ecologically efficient (environmentally friendly and with an important role in sustainable animal farming), and embody an invaluable socio-cultural value (traditional keeping and heritage), they make an important study object for geneticists, historians/archaeologists and modern day craftsmen.

In general, northern Europe native sheep breeds are quite well preserved and very much valued. Living under harsh environmental conditions for centuries have made them well adapted, while peripheral locations have kept them from extensive crossbreeding. These aspects have made them valuable for modern day husbandry strategies, breed improvement, and preservation of genetic and phenotypic diversity. Those populations are collectively called the northern European short-tailed breeds – universally a unique group. The Kihnu native sheep are often believed to be part of that group, but still without full agreement about the membership.

To clarify the history, development and affinities of sheep populations in north-eastern Europe, with a focus on Estonia and the Kihnu native sheep, project OVinE was implemented. Two broad topics that Dr. Rannamäe addressed, were:
1) How have the sheep populations in Estonia and the surrounding region of north-eastern Europe developed over the last 3000 years (from the time sheep husbandry became one of the dominant livestock husbandries in the region until the present day)?
2) What are the affinities between the ancient (archaeological/historical) and extant (Kihnu native sheep) populations, that is, to what extent have the ancient lineages been preserved in modern sheep; and how do the Estonian sheep compare to other northern European native breeds?

To fulfill those aims, Dr. Rannamäe had three methodological approaches:
a) Genetics (whole genome analyses);
b) Morphometrics (analyses on the size and shape of sheep based on their skeletal elements);
c) Native sheep husbandry (appearance of the animals, traditional animal keeping, historical and ethnographic sources).
The work performed primarily consisted of molecular laboratory experiments and analyses, and osteological analyses of archaeological materials. Altogether 90 archaeological sheep specimens from north-eastern Europe were selected for the ancient genomic analyses, complemented with modern genetic analysis of 80 Estonian native Kihnu sheep. These are sufficient numbers for population-level genetics analyses, allowing comparison of ancient versus modern animals. Most of the ancient samples were extraordinarily well preserved, giving good quality DNA necessary for comprehensive genetic analyses.

For morphometric studies, 9 different osteology collections were visited and an outstanding number of around 2000 bone specimens and 160 skeletons were measured. Initial results have shown variability in the size of sheep in spatio-temporal scale – later, these data will be compared with genetic and environmental data to assess potential causes for these morphological fluctuations, including environmental and genetic effects, or changes in animal husbandry practices.

Finally, to study the most recent history of the native sheep – the last 200 years – historical descriptions and ethnographic information were interrogated, leading to a better understanding of the Kihnu native breed and traditional sheep keeping.

All results are to be published in peer-reviewed international journals and books. For now, the preliminary results have been disseminated mostly among the scientific community (international conferences and seminars) and discussed with other project managers of similar research topics in terms of possible future collaboration.
State-of-the-art in the research of historic sheep husbandry in Estonia has been based on general zooarchaeological studies and preliminary genetic analyses. Project OVinE has brought this research to a new level, with the application of whole genome analysis, wide-scale morphometric studies and a detailed historical background. Project results have revealed new insights on the development of sheep populations and the affinities among the northern European native sheep breeds, including the Kihnu native sheep in Estonia. The results allow a more detailed interpretation of the past animal husbandry and utilisation of sheep. This project has shown that it is important to preserve and maintain zooarchaeological collections – something that, unfortunately, is often overlooked as less significant compared to other types of archaeological collections. Another important result is that the knowledge gained is of considerable value to the conservation and management of the native sheep today. Eventually, it is hoped this will lead to wider acknowledgement of Estonian native sheep in northern Europe and to promoting more sustainable animal husbandry, local farming, environmentally friendly sheep keeping and ecological and traditional products.

Overall, project OVinE has created a very strong basis for subsequent research by raising new research questions, expanding the network of collaborators, widening the methodology to be used in the future, and revealing the potential of the zooarchaeological remains in the studies of modern day animal populations.
Rannamäe - project OVinE - image for the Summary for Publication