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Ancient Britons shunned seafood in favour of dairy

21 February 2014, by Tamera Jones

People living in the northwestern fringes of Britain around 6000 years ago suddenly stopped relying on seafood for sustenance and turned to intensive dairy farming instead, scientists have discovered.

Early Neolithic Carinated Bowl from Knocknab, Dumfries & Galloway

Early Neolithic Carinated Bowl from Knocknab, Dumfries & Galloway.

The findings suggest that rather than gradually picking up aspects of domestication, ancient Britons may have quickly adopted fully-fledged farming after immigrants from continental Europe introduced them to it.

'Dairy farming is quite complicated, and it's unlikely our ancestors would have just figured it out. Instead, we think dairy farmers from Europe came to Britain with their ideas, which people quickly adopted,' says Dr Lucy Cramp of the University of Bristol, lead author of the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Farming is thought to have started in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago. But exactly how farming came to northern Europe 6000 years ago is hotly debated among archaeologists.

Previous studies suggest that people in Britain suddenly switched from a marine diet to a terrestrial-based diet around 6000 years ago, supporting the theory that mainland Europeans brought the technique to Britain.

'The ability to milk animals was a revolution in food production. For the first time, people didn't have to kill animals in order to eat well.'
Dr Lucy Cramp, University of Bristol

But some researchers argue that the evidence for this narrative isn't robust. This is because it's based on a limited number of skeletal remains whose bones show a unique chemical signature suggesting a terrestrial diet.

Plus, they say the technique used in early studies isn't sensitive enough to detect whether someone's diet might have contained less than 20 per cent marine protein. Not just that, but studies have revealed the presence of shells in Neolithic rubbish dumps, suggesting people did eat seafood.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team led by Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, undertook a large-scale, three-year investigation of archaeological sites dating from 3800 BC to 1400 AD.

The team, which included researchers from the universities of Bristol and Cardiff and National Museums Scotland, examined millions of bone fragments. They also analysed over 1000 pottery fragments using a new technique developed at the University of Bristol to detect miniscule amounts of fatty seafood residues embedded in the fabric of ancient cooking pots.

These pottery fragments came from archaeological sites across mainland Britain, the Scottish Isles, the Isle of Man and Ireland.

'Our lipid biomarker-based gas chromatography-mass spectrometry technique can detect stable marine biomarkers at concentrations of just a trillionth per gram, which means we can tell if people processed even small amounts of seafood in their pots,' says Cramp.

After detailed analysis, the British researchers found little to suggest Neolithic people processed fish or other seafood in cooking pots. They also found very little evidence for marine fossils in domestic waste sites. Nor were there signs of a marine-based diet in ancient Britons' bones.

'There was an almost complete absence of aquatic biomarkers on the pottery fragments – less than one per cent of fragments from over 40 sites,' says Cramp.

'This shows that marine products were of little importance to the Neolithic farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos,' she adds.

But by the time of the Vikings around AD800 to AD1400, the researchers found much more widespread evidence for fish processing.

Other studies have shown that around the same time, early ancestors from the Baltic regions continued eating fish and other seafoods alongside dairy products.

'The ability to milk animals was a revolution in food production. For the first time, people didn't have to kill animals in order to eat well,' says Cramp.

Lucy J. E. Cramp, Jennifer Jones, Alison Sheridan, Jessica Smyth, Helen Whelton, Jacqui Mulville, Niall Sharples and Richard P. Evershed, Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos, Proceedings of the Royal Society B vol. 281 no. 1780 20132372, published 12 February 2014 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2372

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