The late Eneolithic and early Bronze Age period (4500 to 2300 BC) of the Dnieper region of Ukraine is considered a key period for the understanding of the prehistoric Pontic steppe (Rassamakin, 1999). For this reason, it has been subject of considerable research over the past decades. Unfortunately, a number of issues, such as the isolation of Eastern Europe and Central Asia during the twentieth century and a lack of evidence with much literature unpublished, means Eurasian prehistory is poorly understood. In particular, problems with the reconstruction of Eurasian prehistory relate to the subsistence economy, the extent of the exploitation of domesticates and, overall, the lifestyle of prehistoric Eurasian people associated with this region.
It is known that domesticated ruminants appeared in the North-Pontic region at around the 6th millennium BC (Bunyatyan, 2003; Kotova, 2003), and other evidence, such as faunal remains and previous isotopic analysis, suggested that animal exploitation was driven by local environmental conditions (e.g. Bunyatyan, 2003; Rassamakin, 1999; Kuzmina, 2003). Furthermore, archaeological and archaeobotanical evidences from sites across the North Black Sea suggested that the gathering and processing of wild and domesticated plants was a significant component of local subsistence strategies (e.g. Bibikova, 1969; Levine, 1999a; Pashkevich, 2003; Velichko et al., 2009; Bendrey, 2011).
This thesis aimed to resolve these difficulties by using an interdisciplinary approach to determine the subsistence economy of the populations living along the Dnieper River. Significantly, it comprises the first study of diet and subsistence practices in the North-Pontic region during the Eneolithic and early Bronze Age, through the application of a combined archaeological, molecular and isotopic approach.
Lipid extracts of >200 potsherds from 5 Ukrainian settlements were analysed by gas chromatography (GC), GC-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and GC-combustion isotope ratio-MS, revealing excellent preservation of animal fats.
The carbon isotope results confirmed that the North-Pontic communities practised a various economy especially in relation to regional needs, developing a flexible system (Bunyatyan, 2003). Interestingly, the exploitation of secondary products, e.g. dairy fats, played a significant role only in the subsistence strategies of the steppe populations, reinforcing the idea of a full pastoral economy, as sheep, goats and cattle were intensively exploited for their secondary products. In contrast, the forest-steppe sites showed a high exploitation of wild animals, horses and aquatic products. These results also revealed that the animals raised in the steppe environment subsisted on a range of different forages composed mainly by a predominant C3 environment with some C4 plant input.
In conclusion, this research has clarified some of the aspects related to both the extent of the exploitation of domesticates and the subsistence economic strategies of prehistoric people living in the area of the North-Pontic region. The information obtained from molecular and compound- specific stable carbon analysis, generally reflects both existing botanical and zooarchaeological records confirming (i) the archaeological theory of a subsistence economy mainly driven by environmental regional differences and (ii) the predominance of ruminant husbandry in the steppe sites and hunting and fishing in forest-steppe settlements.