Bone Analysis Suggests Neolithic
People Preferred Meat

News You Can Use

by Mike Richards

British Archaeology, No. 12, March 1996: Features

`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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