Food For Thought: A Biochemical Study of Ancient Greek Shepherding

Katherine Bishop, PhD Candidate, University of Alberta

K. Bishop was also a 3MT presentation finalist in 2018. Watch her presentation here.

Think about the last time you had a bite of feta cheese, put on a pair of woolen socks, or came in contact with any other sheep or goat product. Did you ever consider where the product came from? The label will likely state “Made in Greece”, but what does this mean? These products come from Greek sheep or goats like those pictured below. These figures illustrate common scenes from the village where I work: a shepherd caring for his flock and his grandson cradling a new lamb. Shepherding is clearly a family affair, and it is actually a process that goes back thousands of years [1] [2]. At what point did shepherding become popular in Greece? When did their family shepherding story begin?

 Shepherd and his grandson, each uniquely caring for their flock in a small village in Thessaly, Greece.

Shepherd and his grandson, each uniquely caring for their flock in a small village in Thessaly, Greece.

Imagine this same Greek village 2,500 years ago. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that sheep and goats were the most popular animals kept because we find a large amount of sheep or goat bones [3]. We also find cheese- and wool-processing tools [4]. Archaeology cannot find evidence showing how animals were managed. Instead, my doctoral research uses a new method to see what ancient shepherding looked like.

My research is based on the concept “you are what you eat”. Using biochemical analysis I analyzed what animals were eating to determine how they were managed 2,500 years ago. In order to explain this I want you to picture yourself as a fluffy Greek sheep. You are eating grass. The grass grew in soils that are geologically specific to where you are eating [5]. It grew using summer moisture from the local stream [6]. All of these factors, including ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and ‘when’ are specific and by eating that grass you incorporate these markers into your body [7]. Your body essentially stores clues about your past meals. But how do I take these clues to understand how ancient sheep were shepherded?

I work with teeth. The small, hard, white objects in your mouth hold multiple years’ worth of clues about past diet [8]. I slice archaeological sheep teeth into segments that each represent one-month worth of diet. I grind each segment into a powder and biochemically test them to determine what and where sheep were eating at different points throughout a year. What I have discovered so far is that ancient sheep eat similar types of food year-round, but are moving with their shepherds seasonally. We thought that  2,500 years ago animals were kept in pens locally year-round [1] [2]. Instead, my results show that shepherds moved their animals across great distances. Because of a single tooth, I have connected ancient practices with modern shepherding. This has implications for family shepherding history, village history, Greek history, and even global economies that use similar shepherding practices like dairy farmers in Alberta and Ontario. Ultimately sheep or goat products “Made in Greece” have a much older history than we originally thought, and this is just the beginning. The next time you bite into feta cheese think about the history behind that bite, and hopefully I have given you some food for thought.


[1] Halstead P. Pastoralism or household herding? Problems of scale and specialization in early Greek animal husbandry. World Archaeol. 1996; 28(1):20-42. DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1996.9980329

[2] Skydsgaard JE. Transhumance in ancient Greece. In: Whittaker CR, editor. Pastoral economies in Classical antiquity. Location: The Cambridge Philological Society; 1988; 14 Suppl p.75-86.

[3] Bishop KG. Kastro Kallithea Archaeological Project 2016 Summer Field Osteology Report. Narthaki (GR): Kastro Kallithea Archaeological Project; 2016 Aug. Report No.: Bishop2016. Internal field report on file with the project.

[4] Haagsma MJ, Karapanou S, and Surtees L. Greek-Canadian fieldwork at Kastro-Kallithea 2006-2011. In: Μαζαράκης-Αινιάν A, editor. Αρχαιολογικό Έργο Θεσσαλίας και Στέρεας Ελλάδας. Πρακτικά επιστημονικής συνάντησης. Εργαστήριο Αρχαιολογίας Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλίας – Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού, Παιδείας και Θρησκευμάτων. Thessaly, Greece; 2015, pp. 245-256

[5] Flockhart DTT, Kysen TK, Chipley D, Miller NG, Norris DR. Experimental evidence shows no fractionation of strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) among soil, plants, and herbivores: implications for tracking wildlife and forensic science. Isotopes Environ Health Stud. 2015; 51(3):372-381. DOI: 10.1080/10256016.2015.1021345

[6] Sponheimer M, Lee-Thorp JA. Oxygen isotopes in enamel carbonate and their ecological significance. J Archaeol Sci. 1999; 26:723-728. DOI: 10.1006/jasc.1998.0388

[7] Schwarcz HP, White CD, Longstaffe FJ. Stable and radiogenic isotopes in biological archaeology: some applications. In: West JB, Bowen GJ, Dawson TE, Tu, KP, editors. Isoscapes: understanding movement, pattern, and process on earth through isotope mapping. Netherlands: Springer Science + Business Media; 2010; pp.335-356. DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-3354-3_16

[8] Balasse M. Reconstructing dietary and environmental history from enamel isotopic analysis: time resolution of intra-tooth sequential sampling. Int J Osteoarchaeol. 2002; 12:155-165. DOI: 10.1002/oa.601