More than a farm animal

Analysis of grave goods sheds light on the spiritual importance of cattle during the Neolithic


From at least the 4th century BC, cattle were an economically indispensable commodity as suppliers of meat and milk, but also as draft animals and producers of manure for farming communities in Africa, Asia and Europe. An investigation of the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 “Scales of Transformation – Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies” of Kiel University (CAU) now also verifies the religious-cultural status of farm animals and provides information about their integration in rituals and spiritual life.

During the Neolithic period in Europe, cattle burials beginning at ca. 3500 BC attest to the importance of the animals for societies at that time. By using analyses of food crust residues on ceramics, a team of scientists of the Collaborative Research Centre 1266 “Scales of Transformation” at Kiel University has successfully confirmed that cattle were also more than simple farm animals for the so-called Funnel Beaker societies in Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia (4100-2800 BC). Molecule- and isotope-specific analyses of fatty acids, so-called lipids, which originate from vessels of a megalithic tomb at Wangels in Schleswig-Holstein, reveal that these richly decorated burial gifts primarily contained beef fats and milk products. In contrast to the grave goods that were deposited in the tomb around 3100 BC, vessels of the neighbouring contemporaneous settlement Oldenburg-Dannau contained a mixed composition of plant and milk products. The exclusive use of beef fat in the context of burials thus indicates the important role of cattle in the ritual and spiritual life of society at that time.

Sea buckthorn oil discovered as a burial gift for the first time

A further special grave gift is represented by the distribution of lipids in a globular amphora from the passage grave, which indicates that the vessel contained sea buckthorn oil. Evidence for the extraction and use of sea buckthorn oil by Neolithic societies has not been provided thus far and is therefore a novelty. Sea buckthorn oil is rich in unsaturated and saturated fatty acids, vitamin C and antioxidants, which suggests its use for medicinal purposes, for example, as a skin care product or its use as a dietary supplement. As an exclusive and valuable burial gift, it was preserved in specific vessels, such as globular amphorae, which were not used for the storage of animal products. Globular amphorae are a vessel type that was prevalent between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea from ca. 3200-2700 BC, which, in contrast to regional ceramics, exhibited a wide distribution. Were globular amphorae specially used for valuable oils?

Insights into the lifestyle of Neolithic societies

The molecular and isotope geochemical study has now been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. It provides further solid evidence for the first time that cattle played a particular role in ritual acts and the spiritual sphere of those Neolithic societies, which did not leave obvious traces – such as cattle burials – behind them. Grave goods, including care products or nutritional supplements in specific types of vessels, provide evidence concerning not only medicinal and nutritional knowledge but also how valuable a healthy lifestyle must have been. Possibly, a first step has now been taken to unravel the unclarified causes of the widespread distribution of globular amphorae. The results of the study enormously expand our image of the economic-religious social structure during Funnel Beaker times, on the one hand, and the Globular Amphorae phenomenon, on the other hand, and stimulate an expansion of the study of food crust residues in order to gain a deeper understanding of societies at that time and of human behaviour in general.

Author: Julian Laabs, Translation: Eileen Kuecuekkaraca

Ceramic grave goods
© A. Heitmann

Grave goods from the passage grave at Wangels: Richly decorated Funnel Beaker ceramics and globular amphorae, stone axes, flint axes and blades.

Sherd of an amphora
© A.S. Jagiolla

Sherd of a globular amphora from the passage grave at Wangels, upon which residues of sea buckthorn oil have been detected.

Original publication:

Weber, J., Brozio, J. P., Müller, J., Schwark, L. 2020. Grave gifts manifest the ritual status of cattle in Neolithic societies of northern Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science 117, 105122.


More information about the SFB 1266:



Prof. Lorenz Schwark
Institut für Geowissenschaften
0431/880-1614 (Sekretariat)