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Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia a as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

Prehistoric pioneers could have relied on shellfish to sustain them as they followed migratory routes out of Africa during times of drought, a new study suggests.

Living specimen of the marine mollusc Conomurex fasciatus. Millions of these shells were found on the Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia as the food refuse of prehistoric fishers. Photo credit: Dr Niklas Hausmann

The study examined fossil reefs near to the now-submerged Red Sea shorelines that marked prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. The findings suggest this coast offered the resources necessary to act as a gateway out of Africa during periods of little rainfall when other food sources were scarce.

The research team, led by the University of York, focused on the remains of 15,000 shells dating back 5,000 years to an arid period in the region. With the coastline of original migratory routes submerged by sea-level rise after the last Ice Age, the shells came from the nearby Farasan Islands in Saudi Arabia.

Plentiful

The researchers found that populations of marine mollusks were plentiful enough to allow continuous harvests without any major ecological impacts and their availability would have enabled people to live through times of drought.

Lead author, Dr Niklas Hausmann, Associate Researcher at the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations – hunter-gatherer migrations would have required local food sources and periods of aridity could therefore have restricted these movements.

“Our study suggests that Red Sea shorelines had the resources necessary to provide a passage for prehistoric people.”

Healthy population

The study also confirms that communities settled on the shorelines of the Red Sea could have relied on shellfish as a sustainable food resource all year round.

Dr Hausmann added: “Our data shows that at a time when many other resources on land were scarce, people could rely on their locally available shellfish. Previous studies have shown that people of the southern Red Sea ate shellfish year-round and over periods of thousands of years. We now also know that this resource was not depleted by them, but shellfish continued to maintain a healthy population.”

Fossil reefs

The shellfish species found in the archaeological sites on the Farasan Islands were also found in abundance in fossil reefs dating to over 100 thousand years ago, indicating that these shellfish have been an available resource over longer periods than archaeological sites previously suggested.

Co-author of the study, Matthew Meredith-Williams, from La Trobe University, said: “We know that modelling past climates to learn about food resources is extremely helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is happening on land and what is happening in the water. In our study we show that marine foods were abundant and resilient and being gathered by people when they couldn’t rely on terrestrial food.”

 

 

 

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On this day( two days late) ten years ago…
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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

Original article:
past horizons
Feb 18, 2014

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