Fallow deer is the most widely distributed deer species on the planet, from the Caribbean to New Zealand. It is, however, unclear how they got there and from where. 20,000 years ago was the last glacial maximum when we had a big lump of ice sat on top of Britain, and that pushed all the animals that did live in Britain before the glacial period away and down to southern Europe, and it’s always been suggested in the literature that the glacial refuge of the fallow deer is in Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey.
The project combined examination of archaeological evidence with genetic studies and biochemical analysis of deer remains. Researchers employed all of these techniques to try to understand what’s going on, whether this deer population really is Anatolian, whether that last population is as endangered as previously thought, and how can it be that this deer species has gone global from what is a very small area.
The project discovered that, contrary to expectations, Anatolian population has never gone anywhere, and has gradually dwindled away and is becoming extinct due to issues of over-hunting. This left the question of where European fallow deer actually came from.
Further research showed that it was in the Roman period that the first major spread of fallow deer occurred. Genetic studies suggest that the population of fallow deer originated from Bulgaria, and then started to appear across the Roman Empire. From the first century BC, they start to appear in Italy, Sicily, through to Portugal, Spain and into Britain.
The team concluded that the spread of fallow deer across the Roman Empire is likely linked into the spread of new religious beliefs, something that’s being explored in the project’s exhibition at the museum of Fishbourne Roman Palace, in Sussex.
Read more about the project on the AHRC website.