Did shepherds actually drive their herds from Lower Valais to the Bernese Oberland and graze their sheep there around 5,000 BC? Many factors indicate that this theory, which would have just been dismissed as speculation until recently, reflects reality. “We have strong indications that argue that people were on the move in the mountains with their animals much earlier than previously assumed”, says Albert Hafner, Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at University of Bern.
The ice field on the Schnidejoch Pass (2,756 metres above sea level) has melted dramatically in the last few decades. The picture shows the situation in 2005.
Image: Kathrin Glauser
Albert Hafner and Christoph Schwörer, environmental scientist and specialist in vegetation history at the Institute of Plant Sciences at University of Bern, have just provided the chain of evidence that supports this assumption in an article in the “Quaternary International” specialist journal.
According to the study, this is how we have to imagine early alpine farming between Valais and the Bernese Oberland: the region around today’s Sitten was populated by people who ran arable and cattle farming around 5,000 BC. They kept sheep and goats, among others. However, the steep and dry slopes in Lower Valais did not produce much feed, which is why the shepherds undertook a two-day hike as far as the Bernese Oberland where they found good grazing opportunities below the Schnidejoch Pass situated at 2,756 metres above sea level.
Sediment analysis and prehistoric finds
The two researchers support their theory on the one hand with prehistoric finds from the Schnidejoch situated above the Lenk and on the other hand by the analysis of sediment cores from Lake Iffig (Iffigensee) just a few kilometres away.
A melting ice field on the Schnidejoch Pass has exposed several hundreds of these kinds of objects since 2003. Including remnants of containers made out of wood, which were very probably used to transport food. The Valais shepherds probably transported provisions in them for the time that they spent with their animals on the Bernese side of the pass.
Strong indications of very early pastoralism in the area of the Schnidejoch is mainly provided by the reconstruction of the region’s vegetation history. Christoph Schwörer analyzed the composition of sediment deposits from Lake Iffig for this. The pollen was of particular interest in the process. From the composition of this pollen it can be deduced which plant species were very widespread in a specific location in the past.