The fallow deer arrived in Europe before humans

The fallow deer arrived in Europe before humans

With most animal species it is simple: they are tame or wild. With the fallow deer it is more complicated. There is an endangered wild species, but they are also considered domesticated and even invasive. Yet the tame species also deserves protection – including as cultural heritage. This is evident from research into the long-term biocultural history of the animal, which was recently published in PNAS and Nature Scientific Reports.

An international and interdisciplinary group of scientists, including Canan Çakirlar, zooarchaeologist at the University of Groningen, concludes on the basis of paleontological finds, including in England and near Maastricht, that fallow deer, particularly of the subspecies Dama damawere widespread in Europe more than 80,000 years before modern humans.

This means that, contrary to what some biologists thought, the fallow deer was not an invasive species. Zooarchaeological, DNA and isotope studies on more than six hundred bone samples together make it clear that during the last ice age, 116,000 to 11,700 years ago, Dama dama survived in only two habitats, in Bulgaria and Anatolia. It was humans who brought the fallow deer, partly domesticated by the first farmers to protect their crops, back to Europe and later spread throughout the rest of the world.

Supernatural power

As early as the Neolithic and Bronze Age, migrating farmers introduced fallow deer to Greek islands such as Chios, Rhodes and Crete. It is striking that, based on their mitochondrial haplotypes, the Neolithic fallow deer on Chios and the modern fallow deer on Rhodes probably did not originate from nearby western Turkey, but from the Balkans. The researchers conclude that factors other than geographical proximity played a role in the movements and introductions of animals: in many ancient cultures, objects and animals that came from far away had greater supernatural power and more prestige.

The Romans spread the fallow deer, in particular Dama dama, throughout their empire, even as far as England. In part this had to do with religion, as the fallow deer was associated with the goddess Diana. But the animals were also used for hunting and, at the time, fashionable game parks.

Maurits van Nassau bought a hundred fallow deer for hunting in the Haagse Bos

Many bone remains from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages have been found on Mallorca. Surprisingly, genetic research made it clear that these were not the remains of Dama damabut from Dama mesopotamica, which occurred in the Near East. This may indicate trade routes via North Africa.

After the departure of the Romans, fallow deer became extinct in Northern Europe. That also happened in the seventh century Dama mesopotamica in Mallorca. It was not until around the year 1000 that fallow deer were reintroduced to England from Anatolia. That became the nursery from which fallow deer were spread throughout the world in the following centuries. Maurits van Nassau, for example, bought a hundred fallow deer from England for hunting in the Haagse Bos. And on Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean Sea, there were so many fallow deer that they symbolized colonial authority. Since the abolition of slavery in 1834, the fallow deer has been the symbol of freedom.

D. mesopotamica is now considered an endangered species, but that does not apply to D. dama. According to the researchers, any protection of animal species must also take into account their value as cultural heritage.