Did Neolithic Farming Fail? the Case for a Bronze Age Agricultural Revolution in the British Isles

By Stevens, Chris J.; Fuller, Dorian Q. | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Did Neolithic Farming Fail? the Case for a Bronze Age Agricultural Revolution in the British Isles


Stevens, Chris J., Fuller, Dorian Q., Antiquity


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Introduction

Gordon Childe classically defined the Neolithic as the transition to agriculture, linking all aspects of Neolithic life from cereals to ceramics into a single cultural package (Childe 1952). For the British Isles, the effect of this 'Neolithic package' on subsistence has been subject to recurrent debate, concerning both the rate of change from hunter-gather to farming, and the nature of Neolithic subsistence, particularly the importance of cereals. The various stances can be broadly divided into two opposing models. The first, the Gradual Indigenous Transition model (Figure 1A, after Thomas 1999), sees a slow change from a hunter-gather to an increasingly agricultural economy, initially associated with the acculturation of farming by hunter-gather groups. In contrast the Rapid Introduced Neolithic (Figure 1B, see Rowley-Conwy 2004, 2011), proposes the swift emergence of a fully agricultural subsistence base around 4000 BC, fuelled by migrating farmers from the continent who quickly displace or acculturate existing hunter-gatherers.

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Encapsulated within these models is considerable controversy over the degree of dependence on cereals. In keeping with the Rapid Introduced Neolithic, are those that see the swift emergence of fully-fledged farmers, with cereals and domesticated animals quickly becoming the main dietary staples (e.g. Rowley-Conway 2004, 2011). Compliant with the Gradual Indigenous Transition, are those who emphasise the role of pastoralism, alongside the continued hunting of wild animals and the collection of wild plant foods, with less reliance on cereals (e.g. Entwhistle & Grant 1989; Thomas 1999). Our purpose in this paper is to argue for a punctuated model for the introduction of farming to Britain when viewed over the long term.

Assessing the evidence for plant use

Several lines of evidence can be used to examine these models, but each has its limitations. Pollen studies show a variable mosaic of clearance during the Neolithic, but many parts of the British Isles remain relatively wooded (Richmond 1999). Further, several lines of environmental evidence suggest cyclical phases of clearance and woodland regeneration continuing throughout the Neolithic in many regions (Thomas 1999: 32; Hey & Robinson 2011). Such patterns could be in keeping with small, intensive plots of cultivation inferred for Britain, similar to those of Early Neolithic mainland Europe (Bogaard & Jones 2007).

Other types of evidence for cereal cultivation, including querns and ard marks, suggest less reliance on cereals than that seen in later agricultural periods. For example, granaries, storage pits and, for many regions, field systems are unknown before the Middle Bronze Age (Bradley 2007: 181-93). Other studies indicate that the incidences of dental caries--associated with the consumption of processed cereals--are very low in British Neolithic populations compared with later periods (McKinley 2008). Similarly, isotope evidence indicates that Neolithic diets were higher in animal protein than later periods, where cereals are accepted as the main dietary staple (Richards 2000). All of this points to cereal cultivation and consumption in the Neolithic, but at a scale that differed in extent to the Middle Bronze Age and later periods.

Before the advent of routine flotation, one factor influencing the view of a fully cereal-based Neolithic was the high number of cereal impressions seen within Neolithic pottery (Jones 1980). However, a major shift in perception regarding subsistence can be traced to a seminal paper by Moffett, Robinson & Straker (1989), in which the evidence for carbonised cereals was shown to be slight in the British Neolithic compared with that for wild foods. By the late 1990s systematic sampling for charred remains from Neolithic features, irrespective of the nature of the deposit, was common practice within British archaeology (Robinson 2000: 85).

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