British Archaeology, no 12, March 1996: Features


Bone analysis suggests Neolithic people preferred meat, writes Mike Richards.

`First farmers' with no taste for grain

The Neolithic period is traditionally associated with the beginning of farming, yet in Britain - by contrast with much of the rest of Europe - the evidence has always been thin on the ground. Where are the first farmers' settlements? Where are the fields?

The almost complete absence of this kind of evidence has led some archaeologists, over recent years, to question the view that people in Britain actually grew most of their food in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Now, a scientific study of Neolithic human bone seems to point in the same revisionist direction.

The small-scale study - the first of its kind - of the bones of about 23 Neolithic people from ten sites in central and southern England, suggests that these `first farmers' relied heavily on animal meat for food, or on animal by-products such as milk and cheese, and that plant foods in fact formed little importance in their diet. The bones date from throughout the Neolithic, c 4100BC - c 2000BC.

The study was based on the idea that our bodies are made up of organic and inorganic components derived from the foods we have eaten. There are a number of ways of tracing the original food source of some of our tissues, and one way is to look at the relative ratios of certain elements, known as `stable isotopes', in bone protein.

These stable isotopes can tell us a number of things about what a person's diet has been for most of their life. One particular isotope can tell us whether humans were getting most of their food from plant or animal sources. Generally speaking, this is done by comparing human isotope values to animal isotope values. If the human values are more like that of a herbivore (eg, horses or cattle) they are eating a great deal of plant food, and if they are more like carnivores (eg, wolves or foxes), they are eating more meat.

A number of human bones from the Iron Age and from Romano-British sites were also tested, and their isotope values were a little higher than those of herbivores. This is as we might expect, as there is little doubt that in these periods people practised relatively intense cereal agriculture, and only supplemented their diet with meat. The Neolithic results, however, were surprisingly different. They were as high, and sometimes even higher, than stable isotope values of carnivores. This suggests the Neolithic people had relatively little plant food in their diet and instead were consuming large amounts of meat. It could also mean they were eating a lot of animal by-products, like milk and cheese, as these are indistinguishable from meat itself using stable isotopes.

So what, then, was the Neolithic economy based on? Animal remains from Neolithic sites are generally of domestic species (eg, cattle and pig) rather than wild, and cattle from Neolithic sites such as Hambledon Hill in Dorset are actually larger than the cattle typically found in the Iron Age. This evidence may suggest an animal-dependent economy - indeed, one in which animals were well treated and kept for a long time - and, as the Neolithic specialist Andrew Sherratt has suggested, the British Neolithic may have been characterised by a `secondary products revolution', with animal husbandry and an emphasis on animal milk and cheese, instead of by an `agricultural revolution' and the growing of crops.

Grain and agricultural implements have, of course, been found at Neolithic sites in Britain. The isotope results do not rule out some limited grain production and consumption; but they suggest it did not form a significant portion of the diet. The sites where grain has been found generally seem to have been used mainly for ritual purposes, and it is possible (as archaeologists such as Richard Bradley and Julian Thomas have argued) that in Britain, on the edge of Europe, grain was grown, or even imported from the continent, only for ritual purposes. Agricultural implements may also have assumed a largely ritual significance.

There are, however, potential difficulties with stable isotope analysis. The main concern is whether the animal stable isotope data used as a benchmark are accurate for the specific British Neolithic sites tested. In the study, we took `average animal values' from a large database, held at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, covering all Europe over the past 10,000 years. It may be that there are regional variations in plant and animal isotope values of which we are, as yet, unaware. Research, however, continues - and if our preliminary results are confirmed, we may be able to scrap the notion of Neolithic agriculturalists in Britain once and for all.

Mike Richards is a PhD student at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology in Oxford


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South Uist's parish borders could be prehistoric, writes Mike Parker Pearson

Two thousand years on the same island

The distant past was profoundly different from today in many ways, yet sometimes we can find threads that link us across the generations to those people long ago. One of the most intriguing areas where we can find this continuity is in territorial or property boundaries - for instance in the boundaries of private estates, parishes, or counties.

Archaeologists are now finding they can trace the origin of more and more boundaries in Britain back to the medieval period, or even Roman times, with the boundaries often pre- dating by far the settlements that currently occupy them. Now, however, on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, recent archaeological work suggests that territorial continuity can be traced back even further. We believe the current parish (or `township') boundaries on the island date from as long ago as the pre-Roman Iron Age.

The South Uist townships and their boundaries were first fully mapped in 1805 and, despite the desertion caused by the Highland Clearances shortly after, many of these land units are still recognised today. The 32 townships mapped in 1805 all run east-west across the island, each straddling the three zones of machair (sandy grassland) on the west, hills on the east and peatland down the middle. The regular size of the townships suggests that, at some time in the past, they were co-operatively agreed, divided or planned out.

Archaeologists from Sheffield University are now beginning to piece together settlement patterns on the island from the Bronze Age onwards, through surveys and excavations of sites in the southern half of the island. It seems that between the Bronze Age and the Viking Period, settlements were largely confined to the machair; but subsequently people moved their settlements to the central peatlands - a process which was only completed when the last community moved off the machair in the 19th century.

The discovery that led us to believe in territorial continuity on the island, however, came in our survey of five southern townships. There, we were intrigued to see a cluster of archaeological sites on the machair within each one. These sites are low mounds covered in shells, sherds and bones; and from the pottery we can deduce that each mound cluster was the site of a settlement in the Iron Age. The pottery of the later Pictish and Viking periods is harder to identify; but we think that each cluster of mounds represents the continuous occupation of the same place for over 1,000 years - from the Iron Age to the Viking Age. (A similar sequence of occupation has been demonstrated over an even longer timespan at the Udal on North Uist, up to the 17th century, in excavations by the freelance archaeologist Iain Crawford.)

We surmised that these ancient farming settlements - one in each of the modern township territories - were the direct ancestors of the communities recorded at the beginning of the 19th century. To check the hypothesis, we looked at other town-ships in the south of the island, and it turned out that the pattern could be replicated in all 11 of them, with the exception of two. Interestingly, these are the only two `shieling' (sheep pasture) townships, which we think were created relatively late.

In one township, Upper Bornish, our ideas of long-term settlement continuity are being further tested by excavation. On one of the three mounds on the machair there is Iron Age and Pictish pottery, and this summer we will dig the site to see if there was a sequence of farms in those periods. Under the other two mounds, last year and in 1994, we found Viking farm buildings; and it was interesting that these were built in the form of Viking longhouses but with their walls sunk in the surrounding sand (with the floor below ground level) - a style that had been used locally since the Bronze Age. This suggested that the native Hebrideans were not killed or evicted by Viking invaders (as some historians have thought) but that they continued to live in these farms, adopting the fashions of the age.

This summer we also hope to locate medieval Bornish which we think is buried beneath the 18th-19th century settlement, a few hundred metres east of the Viking farms. If our hunch is right, we will be able to trace the continuous history of Bornish back to around 100BC. It is a sad paradox that the enormously long history of these townships ended abruptly and brutally in 1820-1850, when all but one were `cleared' by their landlords, who packed almost the entire population off to Nova Scotia because they were less profitable than sheep. Today, no one in Bornish has ancestors who lived there before the Highland Clearances.

Dr Mike Parker Pearson is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield


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Prehistory contains many examples of people driving animal species to extinction, explains James Steele

`Eco-noble savages' who never were

One of the pervasive myths of our environmentally-conscious age is that traditional peoples, uncorrupted by modern civilization, live in perfect harmony with the `balance of nature'. Traditional peoples are often credited with an understanding of the need for sustainable living - for instance, practising restraint in hunting to conserve prey stocks. And of all traditional peoples, native American Indians are the principal subjects of such Western veneration.

But how well does the evidence stack up? Prehistory is in fact full of examples of traditional peoples modifying their environment and sometimes, in the process, driving animal species to extinction. Ironically some of the most decisive evidence comes from the ancient Americas.

Some recent anthropological studies, too, have cast a sceptical eye over the Green myth of `ecologically noble savages'. When, for instance, the American anthropologist Michael Alvard observed prey choices made by the Piro hunters of Amazonian Peru, he found that large monkeys - the slowest-reproducing prey species, most vulnerable to extirpation -were always pursued when sighted. Moreover, the Piro hunters showed no tendency to avoid adults of prime reproductive age, or females, in any of their prey species - tendencies which ought to characterise the `prudent predator'.

Amazonian Indians appear often to have maintained sustainable prey stocks by shifting their settlement sites as local resources are depleted, but this does not entail a conscious `conservation ethic'. Dr Alvard has written that he expects research on other contemporary hunting peoples to show that `the appearance of balance between traditional native groups and their environment has more to do with low population densities, lack of markets, and limited technology than it does with any natural harmonious relationship with nature'.

It seems likely that much the same was true in the distant past - that low population densities, lack of markets and limited technology sometimes prevented the survival of evidence for a highly predatory approach to hunting.

By the time early humans (Homo erectus,archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthal Man, and the rest) first reached temperate Europe, at least 500,000 years ago, their diet clearly included a large amount of meat. We know this both archaeologically (for instance, by studying animal refuse at archaeological sites), and anatomically - with their large brains and small guts, these people needed to run on high-quality fuel. Moreover, according to work by the American anthropologists Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus, the Neanderthals had high rates of injury involving skeletal trauma most like that seem in modern rodeo performers - suggesting, they say, `frequent close encounters with large ungulates [ie, hoofed animals] unkindly disposed to the humans involved'.

But what we don't see at this time is evidence of overhunting - that is, an increase in the rate at which European herbivore species went extinct. If anything, after about 450,000 years ago, there seems to be an increase in herbivore diversity in Europe, and this is particularly marked among the rhinos, large bovids (cattle), ovicaprids (sheep and goats) and antelopes.

One of the reasons to blame low human population densities and poor hunting technology for this increase in animal biodiversity - rather than some `instinct for conservation' - is that when anatomically modern humans evolved later, armed with a more efficient hunting technology, more extensive social networks (we believe) and bigger hunting-group sizes, their impact on species biodiversity was marked - with some of the most notable evidence coming from the Americas.

Anatomically modern humans arrived in the Americas at the end of the last Ice Age 13,000- 14,000 years ago, and their arrival coincided with a peak in the extinction rates of endemic large animal species. At the end of the Ice Age in North America, 33 genera (or individual species) were lost, including several families of species, and one whole order (the mammoths and mastodons). In South America during the same period, at least 46 genera became extinct, including sloths, giant rodents, large carnivores, mastodons, horses, and various types of peccary (South American hogs), camel and deer.

Some of these extinctions must have been caused by indirect effects of human actions - removal of some large-bodied herbivores, for example, may have had knock-on consequences for other species. Some were surely due to the rapid climate changes of that time, altering ground vegetation cover at rates which may have outstripped the ability of many animals to adapt or migrate. But in cases such as the mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, horses, camels and giant tortoises, where remains of extinct species have been found in association with Early Palaeoindian artefacts, a role for human predation seems undeniable.

It need not, in fact, take much hunting to push such large-bodied, slow-reproducing species away from an equilibrium balance of births and deaths. Dr Steven Mithen of Reading University has calculated, for instance, that an expanding population of Palaeoindian colonists hunting mammoths at a rate of just one animal per hunter per year, with a random killing pattern cutting across all age and sex classes, could have driven the mammoths of North America to extinction in less than a millennium.

What is more, recent radiocarbon dates on bone collagen show that mammoths survived in a unique refuge on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean off north-east Siberia until 2000BC or later. By implication, the climatic changes associated with the post-Ice Age warming are not sufficient to account for their extirpation from the mainland of America and Eurasia thousands of years earlier. That's as close as we're likely to get to proof that humans were responsible.

But it isn't just hunter-gatherers in the past who undermined the long-term conservation of animal biodiversity. The global expansion of societies of cultivators and keepers of domestic livestock also resulted in large numbers of species extinctions.

Endemic species on islands were especially vulnerable to extinction as a result of such human impact. In the Pacific islands, where there were virtually no endemic mammals and where birds had evolved to fill the mammal niches, human colonization brought a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. In New Zealand, for instance, the larger species of moa - the flightless birds that were the largest endemic animals on the islands - were hunted into extinction in a period of less than 300 years following human arrival. Perhaps 2,000 species of birds were lost from the tropical Pacific alone - representing a 20 per cent reduction in world numbers of bird species. Most were rails (a species of flightless land bird).

The causes of these extinctions included human predation, habitat loss, and the effects of introduced predators such as the rat, competitors and pathogens. The extent of loss of endemic species in Polynesia can be seen in contrast with the rich endemic fauna of the Galapagos Islands, uninhabited by humans before their European discovery in AD1535.

Dale Serjeantson, an animal-bones specialist at Southampton University, has observed a similar process that took place closer to home. The great auk, a species of large flightless bird whose geographical range once extended throughout the North Atlantic, was common on the northern and western seaboard of Scotland 6,000 years ago. Great auk bones become less and less frequent, however, in archaeological assemblages from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, and by the historical period the Scottish great auk population had been extirpated as a breeding species except on one or two very isolated uninhabited islands. The last remaining individuals of this now-extinct species were recorded in Iceland in 1844.

According to Ms Serjeantson, the great auk was vulnerable to extinction, being flightless and laying a single egg each year. But she also speculates that the Scottish population might have been saved had adequate great auk colony management practices evolved sooner which took this into account.

Among prey species, the slow-reproducing ones are especially vulnerable to human extirpation. So are species which migrate across the territories of different human groups, and species unfortunate enough to be hunted at times when humans live in unstable groups or have not established stable territories. This is because a desire to conserve requires two preconditions - the ability to enforce restricted harvesting of the resource by all its users (else why stint now, if others persist in over-exploitation), and the ability to predict who will inherit the fruits of our prudent usage. It seems a paradox that these ideological conditions are often readily met by farming societies, where a natural landscape has already been destroyed and replaced by a human construction.

Dr James Steele is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Southampton


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