Wild waterbuffalo in holocene Europe

Opinion, by Henri Kerkdijk Otten
27 - 01 - 2012

We know that Bubalus Murrensis, the wild European waterbuffalo, was present in Europe during the pleistocene. Osteological remains have been found from virtually all over Europe, except Scandinavia and the northeastern part of Europe. Remains have all been found near (large) rivers. Riverine habitats and close surrounding areas, seems to have been the habitat of choice of the waterbuffalo.
There is no doubt that the waterbuffalo formed an intricate part of the megafauna of Europe.

It is also noted that during the periods between the ice ages, the so called interglacials, Bubalus Murrensis seems to have migrated from Asia to Europe, with Europe being nothing more than a Peninsula of Asia. During the ice ages, Bubalus Murrensis locally died out in Europe or retreated to refugia in Asia. This retreat and return pattern happened during every glacial and interglacial in the Pleistocene.
It is very important to note that the Black Sea did not exist at that time and that the sea was flooded as recent as somewhere around 6500 to 5500 BC.

As we all know, the holocene presents a clear breach with former periods. The late pleistocene, but certainly the holocene, saw a very strong and growing anthropogene influence on animal species populations in Europe and elsewhere. For the first time after the last ice age, the recolonization of Europe by certain species failed or came to a halt somewhere in the course of time.
As an example; the European cave lion died out during the last ice age, but Europe was recolonized by lions coming from Asia from the subspecies Pantherus Leo Persica (Sommer et al., 2005, Bartosiewicz, 2009). Lions mainly colonized the Balkans and beyond. Relatively quickly after the recolonization, a gradual dwindling of Lion populations started. During the copper age, lions were still found in Hungary and Romania. Lions were pushed back further and further and died out somewhere in the 1st or 2nd century AD.
The Bubalus Murrensis died out in Europe or retreated to Asia, during the onset of the last ice age. Normally, Europe would have been recolonized by waterbuffalo after the last ice age. This happened with other species, such as the aforementioned lion. Bökönyi (1957, 1974) concluded after research that Bubalus Arnee, a very close Asiatic relative of Bubalus Murrensis, was present in the Carpathian Basin (Hungary and Romania) during the so called Atlanticum period, the period roughly between 8000 to 4000 BC. These findings are corroborated by osteological remains of Bubalus, that were found near Donnerskirchen in Austria, in the neighborhood of the Neusiedlersee and that are dated at the beginning of the Atlantikum period that started around 7000 BC (Pucher, 1991).
It has been confirmed that the Aurochs did survive in refugia like the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas, but that after the beginning of the Holocene, central and northern Europe were recolonized by Aurochs coming from the east and not from the south (Canon et al., 2000, Mona et al., 2010, Caramelli et al., 2011). The same is true for wild horses (Warmuth et al., 2011).
Just like with Bubalus Murrensis in the pleistocene, and just like with lions, aurochs and horses in the Holocene, Europe was recolonized by waterbuffalo coming from the east, from Asia. Not only is the waterbuffalo part of a trend, but there are actual findings of wild waterbuffalo from the era confirming this.
The fact that wild waterbuffalo are found in the Carpathian Basin and eastern Austria should come as no surprise. Waterbuffalo were present near, but also migrated along, large waterways. The Danube Delta and river and its tributaries seems to have been the highway whereby wild waterbuffalo reentered Europe from Asia. The observant reader will have noticed that the Black Sea as such did not exist before 6500 – 5500 BC and that the possible migration route presented a continues path from the Carpathian Basin to the rest of Asia, along which animals could migrate from east to west.

It seems that wild waterbuffalo were not able to push further west than Austria. This could ofcourse have to with the fact that more remains simply have not been unearthed yet. There also seems to be a trend to deny Bubalus findings on the basis that wild waterbuffalo simply could not have been present in Europe during the Holocene.
It is more important to note that migrations along large rivers presents a very narrow and limited path of migration. Humans were overly present near big rivers and expansion of wild water buffalo was simply stopped in its tracks because of that. This is a clear difference with the recolonization by Aurochs and wild horses and the importance of this difference cannot be stressed enough.

Without an ever stronger growing anthropogene pressure, there is no doubt that wild waterbuffalo coming from Asia would have been able to recolonize the rest of Europe, just like they did during every interglacial in the Pleistocene.
Apart from the clear advantages of waterbuffalo in nature management in Europe (Wiegleb and Krawczynski, 2010) and apart from the fact that they occupy an ecological niche that cattle and horses cannot occupy, the archaeozoological story alone justifies the use of waterbuffalo in nature management and rewilding schemes in Europe today.