Image: Hans Splinter (Flickr, used under a CC BY-ND 3.0)
Topic: Neolithic diet
The appearance of farming, from its inception in the Near East around 12 000 years ago to the northwestern extremes of Europe by the fourth millennium BCE or shortly thereafter has led to various models being created to explain the Neolithisation of northern Europe; however, resolving these different scenarios has proved problematic due to poor faunal preservation and a need to have a quantitative methodology to examine disparate locations.
New research by archaeologists and chemists from the University of Bristol and Cardiff University published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B attempts to answer the question of dietary change utilising multiple evidence strands, which qualitatively and quantitatively maps subsistence dietary change in the north-east Atlantic archipelagos from the Late Mesolithic into the Neolithic and up to 1400 CE
Cross disciplinary techniques
To do so the researchers had to use cross disciplinary techniques to investigate and sample millions of bone fragments and over 1000 ceramic cooking pots. The model involved investigating sites with hunter–gatherer–fisher influences tested against one of the dominant adoptions of farming using a novel suite of lipid biomarkers and stable carbon isotope signatures of individual fatty acids preserved in cooking vessels.
The team, led by Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, developed new techniques in an effort to identify fish oils in the pots. Their findings, together with archaeozoological and human skeletal analysis explored by the Cardiff group led by Dr Jacqui Mulville, confirmed that a drop in marine resource usage by early farmers coincided with with the adoption of intensive dairy farming, with more than 99 per cent of the earliest farmer’s cooking pots lacking any marine derived residues.
Human bone collagen contains a unique chemical signature for those eating seafood; while the early fisher folk possessed this signature it was lacking in the later farmers, which backed up the lack of marine residues in the pottery.
Seafood not important to neolithic farmers
Lead author of the study, Dr Lucy Cramp said: “The absence of lipid residues of marine foods in hundreds of cooking pots is really significant. It certainly stacks up with the skeletal isotope evidence to provide a clear picture that seafood was of little importance in the diets of the Neolithic farmers of the region.”
Over 1,000 cooking pots were examined for lipid deposts such as this early Neolithic carinated bowl from Knocknab, Dumfries and Galloway. Image Alison Sheridon, NMS
The Bristol team used a compound-specific carbon isotope technique they have developed to identify the actual fats preserved in the cooking pots, showing that dairy products dominated the menu right across Britain and Ireland as soon as cattle and sheep arrived.
The ability to milk animals was a revolution in food production as, for the first time humans did not have to kill animals to obtain food. As every farmer knows, milking stock requires a high level of skill and knowledge. In view of this, team member, Alison Sheridan from National Museums Scotland concludes that: “The use of cattle for dairy products from the earliest Neolithic confirms the view that farming was introduced by experienced immigrants.”
New diet based around dairying
Viewed together the findings show that Early British hunters ate a diet rich in venison and wild boar as well as eating quantities of sea food, including seals and shellfish. With the introduction of domestic animals some 6,000 years ago they quickly gave up wild foods and fishing was largely abandoned with people adopting a new diet based around dairying.
Dr Cramp continued: “Amazingly, it was another 4,000 years before sea food remains appeared in pots again, during the Iron Age, and it was only with the arrival of the Vikings that fish became a significant part of our diet.”
Why people changed so abruptly from a seafood to farming diet still remains a mystery. This pattern of Neolithisation contrasts markedly to that occurring in the Baltic at exactly the same time, suggesting that geographically distinct ecological and cultural influences dictated the evolution of subsistence practices at this critical transitional phase of European prehistory.
Source: University of Bristol/Proc R Soc B
Feb 18, 2014