EvoSheep – Origin and evolution of sheep breeds: The diversity of modern breeds, Lebanon

EvoSheep is a multi-disciplinary project on the origin and evolution of sheep breeds, carried out by archaeozoologists, epigraphers, bio-statisticians, and geneticists (Vila et al. 2021). The research focuses on the Near East, where sheep was domesticated, to understand the emergence of initial breeds and their diversification with the development of distinct phenotypes (size and robustness, fleece colour and type, tail length and width, presence, and shape of horns). Together, with the diachronic study of archaeological remains of domestic sheep between the 5th and 1st millennia BC, our group works on the morphology of animals through morphometric analyses and the genetic diversity of sheep populations; we analyse also the historical description of the sheep within societies that have left textual and iconographic data. To relate the past to the present we also investigate modern breeds in a large region from Eastern Africa to Iran to understand the evolution of domestic sheep through time and space.

One of the challenges of the EvoSheep project is to develop morphometric methods on bones to detect population signals, i.e. to be able to distinguish from sheep bones distinct groups that are linked to their breed. In order to develop these methodological approaches and to be able to apply them to archaeological bones, it is initially necessary to work with skeletons of known breeds with a precise geographical origin. However, the osteological collections found in natural history museums consist mostly of wild animals. They were mainly elaborated by explorers and early anatomical scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who brought back animals from their expeditions all over the world. They reflect aspects of a country’s political and scientific history, and although they continue to be supplemented by skeletons of animals, either donated or dead in captivity in zoos, few of the specimens belong to domestic animals. Domestic breeds differ greatly from continent to continent and from region to region. For example, no fat-tailed sheep is bred in Western Europe, whereas it is the most common type of sheep in Southwest Asia and parts of Africa. Thus, to study the diversification of sheep in the Near and Middle East from a common ancestor, we need to look at current breeds reared in these areas. We are fortunately able to work on two existing collections of breeds from Iran and Turkey: firstly, an osteological collection of sheep of two Iranian breeds (Bakhtiari and Ziaran) assembled by Marjan Mashkour as part of a Fyssen Foundation-funded project on transhumance and vertical mobility of flocks (Mashkour 2001 ; Mohaseb 2003 ; Mashkour et al. 2005) Secondly, a reference collection of Karagoz sheep, a local Turkish breed (equivalent to the White Karaman breed), collected by Ingrid Beuls and Béa de Cupere and colleagues (Beuls et al. 2000, Beuls 2004) in the framework of a Belgian project on traditional pastoral farming systems. Therefore, we choose to complete these osteological collections with sheep of the Awassi breed, the resilient breed that is the most widespread in the Near East, as well as sheep of African breeds from the Horn of Africa, a region of contact with the Arabian Peninsula and the Near East beyond the Red Sea through which people, domestic animals, raw materials and manufactured products have always circulated.

In Lebanon!

The diversity of modern breeds, Lebanon

The osteological collection of Awassi specimens has been  assembled during two field missions of about ten days each, carried out in northern Lebanon in July 2018 and July 2019 with students from the Department of Art and Archaeology of the Lebanese University.

Fig. 1 :Awassi ewe

In Lebanon, as in the rest of the Levant, Syria and Iraq, the majority of sheep flocks are of the Awassi breed (fig. 1). This is a robust indigenous breed of sheep with a fat tail and a fleece that is described as coarser wool or “carpet wool”. Indeed, among the different fibres that make up the woolly fleece, the thicker ones such as coarse kemps (hair with a medullary cavity) and heterotypic hair (hair that is thick with a medullary cavity or thin without a medullary cavity depending on the summer/winter seasonal growth) are numerous compared to the fine woolly hair. The tail is characteristically fat, broad and of medium length, ending mostly above the hock. It consists of two lobes which widen towards their lower part and end with a short and thick appendage. The lower part of the lobes is divided by a slit. The long head is narrow with a convex profile; often dark, brown or black, with no fleece; the ears are of medium size and usually hanging. Males have beautiful, twirled horns, while females are mostly hornless (fig. 2). The coat is beige in colour, sometimes spotted with black. This breed is known for its great endurability regarding climatic and food supply fluctuations and its strong resistance to diseases and parasites. It is very well adapted to the arid environments of the Near East, and forms the herds of semi-nomadic Bedouins who practice seasonal transhumance. Compared to modern meat breeds, the musculature of the limbs is not very important and the meat value of its carcass is quite low, while the tail fat has a high nutritional value. Due to its endurance and stamina, it is a breed that is currently used for hybridization in different parts of the world (Jawasreh et al. 2019). It is considered to be a very ancient breed which is believed to date back to the 3rd millennium BC. It seemed essential for our project to study the osteological and skeletal characteristics of this breed and to perform a morphometric study on its bones (for more details on the Awassi breed, refer for example to Epstein 1982, Tabbaa 2001, Galal 2008). For this purpose, it was necessary to locate modern sheep and acquire their skeleton for analysis.

Fig. 2: Awassi ram

Awassi sheep occur widely in the Lebanese landscape; their breeding constitutes an important part of the agro-pastoral economy of the country for meat and milk because the ewes are excellent milk producers. However, it is not easy to purchase the animals required to elaborate an osteological reference collection. In this case we were looking for adult males and females of about 36 months of age. However, farmers are reluctant to sell any of their aged livestock for reasons of herd management, milk and woolly fleece production, and breeding needs. It is more common for them to trade young males because they keep only a few breeding animals while they have a few adult rams for sale, they do not give up easily the adult ewes. Contacts with intermediary merchants made it possible to acquire ten sheep in July 2018 from the Syrian and Iraqi steppes, and from Lebanon. Then in July 2019, thanks to direct contacts with a breeder, we managed to purchase ten more sheep from the same flock in northern Lebanon  (fig. 3 & 4). This represents a total of eleven males and nine females.

Fig. 3: Origin of the sheep flocks
Fig. 4: Choosing the sheep

During both missions, we followed the same procedures. After purchase, the sheep are taken to a small local slaughterhouse where they remain in the sheepfold until slaughter. The first operation carried out is to document each animal, following a standard descriptive sheet that we have developed taking into account general information on the origin of the living animal, its age, its gender, as well as qualitative and quantitative physical characteristics partly based on the zootechnical work (FAO 1986, Traoré et al. 2008, Pourlis 2011). A number of measurements are taken at this time: height     at withers, chest diameter, body and head length, tail length and width etc. (fig. 5). Each sheep is then photographed, from the side, front and back, in order to keep a documentation of its general silhouette and the characteristics of its head and tail . After the slaughter, according to our request, the butchers cut the sheep carefully with a separation at the joints so as not to break the bones, contrary to the tradition of cutting the meat into quarters which leave marks on the bones; the most complicated part is the cutting of the spine and the separation of the ribs, which only very experienced butchers know how to do without damaging the bones. The meat is weighed and set aside for sale. For each sheep, a tissue sample was taken and put in an alcohol solution for further DNA analysis.

Fig. 5: Documenting the sheep
Fig. 6: Preparing the skeleton

The skeletons were prepared in a large courtyard of the excavation house lent to us by the General Directorate of Antiquities of Lebanon, thanks to our contact with the DGA representative in the North, Samar Karam (fig. 6). The cleaning of bones is a real struggle, with difficulties encountered during the preparation of fresh skeletons but also to ensure the long preservation of specimens in osteological museum collections (Lemoine and Guilminot 2009). Indeed, one of the cleanest and most radical methods is to bury the carcasses, but the  duration of the cleaning is related to the size of the specimens and the amount of fat in the body, i.e. more than one year to obtain bleached sheep bones in this natural way. We had neither the time nor the special means in the field to treat our specimens, so the simplest solution to clean the bones was to boil them with common washing detergent. Three large boiling kettles were installed in a protected corner of the yard over an open fire fed by bottled gas. The multiple cooking vessels facilitated the processing of several carcasses at the same time to speed up the process and, most importantly, to prevent the mixing of the bones of individuals, especially tiny bones from tails or lateralized parts such as the extremities of the legs (phalanges). Nevertheless, the process remains relatively long. After an initial two/three hours of simmering, a first phase of clearing the bones of any meat still attached was mandatory. Afterward, the bones were put back on the fire and this second cooking was also followed by a bone-by-bone cleaning to scrape off the ligaments and meat remains. A final episode of cooking was undergone to remove as much fat as possible; the whole process takes more than 10 to 12 hours per individual. Then the remains were put to dry and bleach in the sun until the end of the preparation mission. Eventually, each bone was marked, individual by individual, measured, and photographed (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Documenting the collection

At the end, bones were selected for further biometric analysis,in particular the petrous bone, a small  skull-bone part of the inner ear and better known as a stone (part of the temporal bone). A special procedure of extraction from the skull was undertaken: the operation is carried out carefully with a mini-drill to avoid damaging the rest of the skull. The petrous bone is one of the bones that, within the framework of the Evosheep project, are being studied with geometric morphometry (an analytical technique used in archaeozoology to distinguish between related taxa based on the study of shape and size of the bone), in order to detect phenotypic differences between sheep breeds.

Lastly, all the bones of the skeletons were stored in separate boxes: they represent our first EvoSheep osteological repository!

Although this adventure was rather crude and smelly, it was to a large extent rewarding. The collaboration with local farmers, herders and butchers was an enriching experience. And the hard work with archaeology students who experienced for the first time this contact with animals and bones was scientifically formative and also socially significant.

This paper is one of several forthcoming episodes: Follow our next adventures in Ethiopia.

Acknowledgements :

EvoSheep is funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR). The project involves the collaboration of five laboratories: Archéorient (Environnements et sociétés de l’Orient ancien, CNRS/ univ. Lyon 2), AASPE (Archéozoologie – Archéobotanique. Sociétés, pratiques et environnements, MNHN/CNRS), CAGT (Centre of Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse, CNRS/univ Toulouse III), LECA (Laboratoire d’Ecologie Alpine,  CNRS/Univ. Grenoble Alpes), Smurfit Institute of Genetics (Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland), and  multiple archaeologists, statisticians and zoologists, but also the cooperation and help of numerous archaeological missions, heritage institutions or academics and people in the field and in the laboratories.

We are most grateful  to the General Directorate of Antiquity in Lebanon for their help and assistance (DG Sarkis Khoury, Samar Karam, Nabih Melhem & Omar Melhem). Special thanks to The Lebanese University, department of art and archaeology (Tripoli and Zahle) and for the students that took part in  this adventure (Zeina Raya, Fatima Khatib, Nour Awada, Christine Kabboul, Rabiaa Houssein, Walid Khalil & Khaldoun Rajab). We are thankful to Abdo Yaghi and his team for the help in acquiring the sheep and giving us access to enclosures for handling animals.


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Les auteurs

Jwana Chahoud est Professeure d’Archéologie Orientale à l’université Lyon 2, spécialiste archéozoologue, UMR 5133-Archéorient, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon / Université Libanaise, Beyrouth

Emmanuelle Vila est Chargée de Recherche au CNRS. Archéozoologue, spécialiste de l’Asie du Sud-Ouest. UMR 5133-Archéorient, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon.

Pour citer ce billet : Jwana Chahoud et Emmanuelle Vila. EvoSheep – Origin and evolution of sheep breeds: The diversity of modern breeds, Lebanon, ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 15 octobre 2021, [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/16478

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