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Ethnoarchaeology:
Current Research and Field
Methods
Conference Proceedings, Rome, Italy,
13th–14th May 2010
Edited by
Francesca Lugli
Assunta Alessandra Stoppiello
Stefano Biagetti
BAR International Series 2472
2013
Published by
Archaeopress
Publishers of British Archaeological Reports
Gordon House
276 Banbury Road
Oxford OX2 7ED
England
bar@archaeopress.com
www.archaeopress.com
BAR S2472
Ethnoarchaeology: Current Research and Field Methods. Conference Proceedings, Rome, Italy, 13th–14th
May 2010
© Archaeopress and the individual authors 2013
ISBN 978 1 4073 1083 1
Printed in England by Information Press, Oxford
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Introduction
The region of Asturias occupies the western part of the
Cantabrian coast in northern Spain (Fig.1). Since
prehistoric times human communities in this area have
evolved different formulas to use their environment, with
pastoralism becoming particularly important after the
Neolithic period and the Bronze Age (DE BLAS 2008: 556-
560; MARÍN 2009).
The relief of the Asturian landscape is extremely complex.
Fig. 1. Location of Ausurias (NW Spain).
Traditional Pastoralism in the Asturian Mountains: an Ethnoarchaeological View on Mobility
and Settlement Patterns
David González Álvarez
Abstract
In this work we study, from an ethnoarchaeological perspective, the different ways of live in the traditional communities
of pastoralists in the mountain areas of Asturias (Northern Spain). Different solutions are documented on settlement patterns
and residential mobility in a very small geographic space. Rural communities in these mountainous areas have preserved,
until very recently, some traditional ways of life in which livestock have had a major influence on their livelihoods. The
domestic animals have been exploited with an interesting variety of specialized formulas, involving different settlement
patterns and residential mobility systems. It is very interesting to contrast the coincidence of different groups of shepherds
- with different ways of life - in a limited mountainous space, and the strong geographical and environmental constraints
of Asturian mountains. This creates a research context where we can reflect on the great variability of social and cultural
aspects within Pastoralism. We will try to understand the construction of identities in a frontier area and to discuss about
the use of labels like “nomads” or “transhumants” in prehistoric archaeology.
KEYWORDS: Pastoralism, Mobility, Mountain Areas, Identity, Frontier Areas.
202
Peaks of more than 2600 metres high are found in the Picos
de Europa massif, only 20 kilometres or so from the
Atlantic Ocean. These great differences in altitude give rise
to an environmental reality which has favoured the
development of different models of mobile pastoralism
which had remained in use until a few years ago (GARCÍA
MARTÍNEZ 2003). In this region, characterised by an
Atlantic climate, herds and flocks can be sustained by
making seasonal use of the different ecological niches that
result from variations in height.
Aims
In this presentation I shall describe an ethnoarchaeological
study on the forms of habitat in the upper pastures and their
exploitation by traditional groups of Asturian pastoralists.
The most interesting finding is the remarkable variability in
pastoral ways of life within the same mountainous areas.
This kind of studies will be used like interpretative points
of reference in my ongoing doctoral research on the social
construction of the Iron Age landscape in this area.
The ethnoarchaeological study of the last forms of
pastoralism still practised today has given me a better
understanding of this subactual cultural landscape, which in
some respects might well resemble that of the pre-Roman
communities with regard to land use, settlement and
perception of the surroundings (GONZÁLEZ ÁLVAREZ
2009). However, I do not intend to establish mechanical
analogies between a subactual reality and the Iron Age. I
believe instead that this ethnoarchaeological approach can
provide me with interpretative stimuli and throw some
explanatory light on matters relating to herding and mobile
pastoralism that are so difficult to contrast in prehistoric
records.
The continuity of certain material forms, such as field
systems and settlement patterns, does not mean there has
been continuity of cultural forms since prehistoric times.
We would be making a great mistake if we drew
mechanical parallels between these historical realities as
this would result in a simplification of reality.
The Ethnoarchaeology of Pastoralism in the
Asturian Mountains
The traditional dedication to pastoralism in the rural
communities of the Asturian mountains is clearly reflected
in the settlement patterns. Different forms of mobile
pastoralism have had a considerable influence on the
anthropisation of this area (LÓPEZ SÁEZ et al. 2006;
LÓPEZ MERINO 2009; MORENO et al., in press).
Pastoralist activities developed without any great changes
until some 50 years ago, when a strong cultural shift
towards the present-day capitalist society led to the demise
of the rural world in its traditional form (GONZÁLEZ
ÁLVAREZ in press).
This locally-evolved type of pastoralism - which even in
its present form has its roots in the late Medieval era
(FERNÁNDEZ CONDE 2001) will be one of the
interpretative points of reference in the doctoral research I
am currently carrying out on the territorialisation and social
construction of the Iron Age landscape in this particular
geographical area.
Subactual Pastoral Systems and Mobility
An interesting diversity of pastoral forms entailing seasonal
mobility is found in the Cantabrian Mountains (GARCÍA
MARTÍNEZ 2003; LÓPEZ, GRAÑA 2003;
VALLADARES 2005). Pastoralist families feed their
livestock over the annual seasonal cycle by making use of
the diverse ecological niches found at different levels of
altitude. This has led to a marked dualism in which the
separation between summer and winter has a strong
influence on aspects related to the economy, sociology and
religion (GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ 2008). Certain phenomena
associated with isolation and endogamy have been
observed in these mountain areas, which are described in
studies carried out on forms of marriage (GÓMEZ 2001).
In contrast with the predominantly pastoralist ways of life
described below, the traditional settlements of sedentary
peasants are grouped in small villages forming the basic
cells of rural space organisation (GARCÍA FERNÁNDEZ
1980).
In the Asturian mountains we find three systems of
pastoralism, depending on the patterns of settlement and
mobility.
Transterminant pastoralism (short-distance
transhumance)
In communities that practise transterminant pastoralism the
main dwelling place is found in the villages of the mountain
valleys. Pastoralism is combined with a small-scale
agriculture. Neither agriculture nor livestock is
predominant; rather, they complement each other as the
basis of a subsistence model. The livestock is fed by
making use of the diverse ecological niches which, thanks
to differences in altitude, are found in close proximity to
each other in the mountain valleys. Procedures involving
the movement of livestock are regulated by local by-laws
established by common law.
This is the most common formula for mobile pastoralism in
the Asturian mountains. It is not a homogeneous activity. It
has variations depending on the different species of
livestock, the length of stay in the upper pastures and the
herders’ established patterns of movement between the
brañas and the villages. The brañas and mayadas also
show local differences in their formal characteristics
(ÁLVAREZ GONZÁLEZ 2001; BARRENA 2001;
GRAÑA, LÓPEZ 2007; CONCEPCIÓN et al. 2008;
LINARES 2004).
The livestock, which includes mainly cows, sheep and
goats (also horses and even pigs), is taken up the mountains
to the fresh summer pastures at the beginning of spring.
Here the animals graze together either on open spaces or in
enclosed fields, depending on the particular circumstances.
It is in these higher areas that we find the groups of huts
known as brañas or mayadas. The livestock is attended by
different people who go up to the pastures and either spend
203
the night in the brañas or go back down to the villages.
Apart from tending the animals, their job entails milking
and taking the products obtained (such as milk, cheese and
lard) down to the villages.
Traditionally, it was elderly people, women and young
people who went up to these pastures while the adult males
stayed down in the villages harvesting and processing
cereals and hay. Recent restructuring of the rural
environment has led to families abandoning subsistence
agriculture in order to specialise in livestock. As a result, it
is the men that now go up to the pastures.
In the pastoral brañas and mayadas there was place for
leisure and fun. Young people from nearby summer
settlements would often gather together and improvise
festive activities. Livestock fairs and feast day celebrations
also took place with dancing, feasting and traditional games
(SORDO 1997: 73-74; LÓPEZ, GRAÑA 2003: 107-108).
On such occasions people from different sides of the
mountain were able to mix and this provided opportunities
to exchange produce or, in the case of young people, do a
bit of flirting.
The seasonal settlements of transterminant communities
can be grouped into two categories, depending on their
form and their use (GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ 2003;
LINARES 2004; GRAÑA, LÓPEZ 2007).
- Equinoctial brañas, used in spring and autumn, are
found at lower altitudes. Although they are above the
tree line they are quite close to the villages. The
buildings are rectangular constructions, with either tiled
or thatched roofs, each consisting of a stable for the
animals on the ground floor, a hay loft under the roof
and a room for the shepherd. They are surrounded by
enclosed fields that provide hay in summer, which is
stored and used as a reserve in autumn. The buildings
are complemented by drinking troughs and structures
for keeping the milk fresh (Fig. 2). Beyond the enclosed
fields, livestock belonging to all the families grazes
together in the pastures. In these lower level brañas
there may be small scale cultivation of rye, spelt wheat
and potatoes.
Use of these settlements begins in spring after the last
snowfall. When summer arrives the herds are taken up
to higher settlements until their return in September.
Thanks to the barns and access to stored hay the animals
are able to stay here well into the autumn, when the risk
of snowfall and severe overnight frost makes it
advisable to move them down towards the valleys. In
winter they graze in pastures close to the village,
spending the night in barns and complementing their
feed with hay harvested in summer.
- The summer brañas are found at a higher altitude in
what are the best pasture lands in the Cantabrian
Mountains. They are occupied between June and
September, usually after the animals have been in the
equinoctial brañas, which is where they return at the
end of the summer, although some families only take
their livestock up to the summer brañas and remain in
the villages in the valley for the rest of the year.
The huts are small and rudimentary, with neither a
stable nor a hay loft. They are generally circular, with
Fig. 2. La Pornacal (Somiedo, Asturias) a typical equinoctial braña.
204
either corbelled stone or thatched roofs, although some
may be slightly larger and rectangular in shape. Here
there are no enclosed fields to provide hay (Fig. 3). The
surrounding pasture land is for collective use and the
livestock grazes freely. In addition to tending the
animals, other activities are carried out in these
settlements, such as cheese-making.
Equinoctial and summer brañas are typical of the most
widespread systems of mobile pastoralism in these
mountain areas. Similar parallels can be found in other
mountainous regions in the north of the Iberian
Peninsula.
The vaqueiros d’alzada
The vaqueiros d’alzada (ACEVEDO 1893; URÍA 1976;
GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ 1988; CÁTEDRA 1989; SÁNCHEZ
GÓMEZ 1989; GONZÁLEZ ÁLVAREZ 2007) include a
unique group found in the central and western parts of
Asturias. They are communities of transhumant pastoralists
who practice a biseasonal pattern of mobility between their
winter villages, situated in the coastal and inland valleys,
and the summer villages in the mountains, where they stay
for up to nine months. The journey from one settlement to
the other is known as the alzada. It takes several days and
the great symbolism attached to it helps to reinforce the
group’s identity. The whole family changes their place of
residence, taking their herds and their possessions with
them.
The settlement pattern of the vaqueiros d’alzada is centred
on the summer villages which are the key to their forms of
production. They resemble sedentary villages in
appearance, with a few crops, enclosed fields and
multipurpose dwellings with a stable and hayloft.
Nevertheless, there are important differences. The
architecture of the houses is different, both in form and
function, from those of other rural parts of Asturias. The
main areas of the house are the barn and the hayloft, which
determine its size and shape. Although there are some
horticultural plots, agriculture is of minor importance.
The houses form the core of the vaqueiros d’alzada
summer settlement with the productive areas lying around
it. Enclosed fields are found in the most fertile zones near
the houses and consist of a few family properties bounded
by stone walls and used as grass meadows or for crops (Fig.
4). The pastures, which are exploited collectively, are found
some distance away and constitute the most important area
as they provide sustenance for the livestock which is mainly
cattle.
Winter settlements have a similar layout, although the land
is of poorer quality. These settlements serve as shelters
from the harsh mountain winters.
Apart from pastoralism, they occasionally turn their hand to
commerce and transportation between the two sides of the
Cantabrian Mountains. This was a way of obtaining enough
money to buy cereals suitable for bread-making, which
their own land did not produce in sufficient quantity.
The exclusive nature of this group within Asturias can be
distinguished by a series of peculiarities relating to its
identity and economy, as well as to more material aspects.
Traditionally, the vaqueiros were to some extent
Fig. 3. A little mayada in the Ventaniella Pass area (Ponga, Asturias).
205
Fig. 4. La peral ( Somiedo, Asturias) is a summer village in where the vaqueiros d’alzada still practise transhmance
nomadays.
Fig. 5. Merino shepherds with their flock in the Cantabrian Mountains, September 1957 (LOMBARDÌA and LÒPEZ,
2003: 207)
206
marginalized. It was widely believed that they formed a
“different race” whose ancestors were not of common
Asturian stock. Of the many stories that went around,
aimed at substantiating this, the most predominant was the
idea that they were descended from the Moors. However, a
more likely motive for this marginalisation was to be found
in issues related to the economy, ecology and religion
(GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ 1988; CÁTEDRA 1989).
Merino Shepherds
Until a few decades ago, large flocks of transhumant sheep
from Extremadura and Castile were moved over long
distances to the pastures of the Cantabrian Mountains.
These were the last heirs of the guild known as the
Honrado Concejo de La Mesta. The journey between the
grasslands of Extremadura and those of the Cantabrian
foothills took between 20 and 30 days. The shepherds led
their flocks on foot, accompanied by mastiffs and pack
mules (Fig. 5).
The use of pastures at such great distances from their place
of origin was made possible thanks to rental arrangements
agreed with the local communities. These received
payment, both in money and in kind, from the outsiders.
The shepherds stayed in huts made of plant material which
were built when they arrived at the mountain passes
towards the end of May. These were sufficiently robust to
last a few years although every year the local youths
destroyed the huts once the shepherds had left (LÓPEZ,
GRAÑA 2003). These were not simple acts of vandalism;
the youths would help the shepherds build the huts when
they arrived to the pastures. In exchange, the shepherds
used to prepare a feast in which they cooked and served
lamb after sacrificing one of the best sheep in the flock. It
was the only occasion on which sheep were slaughtered to
be eaten. This is a good example of the ritualised pacts
between different pastoral communities on the usufruct of
high pasture land in frontier areas.
The stay in the mountains lasted until October when it was
time to begin the journey back to the pastures of
Extremadura where winter would be spent.
Final Remarks
The variability in patterns of animal husbandry in the
Asturian mountains has produced an interesting and diverse
process of anthropisation of the landscape, in which we find
different synchronised models of settlement related to
different forms of mobile pastoralism. This provides an
excellent point of reference for those of us involved in
research on the Prehistory of mountainous regions.
In general, when pastoral mobility is considered as a
hypothesis for understanding the ways of life of prehistoric
groups, the finer points of each form of mobility are not
usually specified in detail beyond the proposal of labels like
“nomads” or “transhumants”. Ethnoarchaeological
approaches such as this help us take account of the
enormous variability within pastoralism, both in forms of
habitat and mobility.
The ascent of shepherds and their flocks to the upper
pastures of the Cantabrian Mountains brought about the
cohabitation of different groups of people in the same area.
This gave rise to an interesting flow of social and economic
relations between the different communities. Not only was
it possible to exchange products, but also information and
orally transmitted stories (VÁZQUEZ VARELA 2001;
LÓPEZ, GRAÑA 2003). Contact between different groups
gave each group a greater knowledge of the world. It
became a support for the construction of their respective
identities (sensu HERNANDO 2002), either through
reference or opposition with regard to “the other”
(GONZÁLEZ RUIBAL 2003). This was something that
was of great importance in pre-industrial communities with
a tendency to be isolated, like these mountain communities.
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208

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