A Neolithic Revolution? New Evidence of Diet in the British Neolithic

By Richards, M. P.; Hedges, R. E. M. | Antiquity, December 1999 | Go to article overview

A Neolithic Revolution? New Evidence of Diet in the British Neolithic


Richards, M. P., Hedges, R. E. M., Antiquity


Introduction

It is tempting to think of the Early Neolithic in southern Britain as being represented as a complete `package' of traits, including pottery, megalithic tombs and wooden structures, and domesticated plants and animals. Indeed, at many Neolithic sites this package of traits does seem to occur together, and on the face of the archaeological record this material culture is very different from that recovered from earlier Mesolithic sites. However, the nature of the transition between Mesolithic and Neolithic periods is a major research concern at present. In particular there are questions about how rapidly the change in material culture occurred, as well as questions of the mechanisms of that change, focusing on questions of whether the Neolithic was brought to Britain by immigrants (Case 1969), adopted by indigenous Mesolithic people (Dennell 1983; Barker 1986), or a combination of the two (Whittle 1996).

Central to our discussion here are inferred changes in subsistence practices between the Mesolithic and Neolithic, which we can roughly summarize as a change from exclusive use of wild foods in the Mesolithic to the increased use of domesticated plants and animals in the Neolithic, introduced to the diets either gradually or rapidly. Until now, there has not been a way of characterizing Mesolithic and Neolithic diet accurately enough to address the question of changes in subsistence between these two time periods. In this paper we present new evidence from the chemical analysis of human bones, namely stable isotope analysis, which can characterize Mesolithic and Neolithic diets, and so can be used to address the question of how rapid the transition in diet was between these two periods.

Radiocarbon dates for the earliest Neolithic How accurately can we date the appearance of Neolithic material culture in the British Isles? Most of the earliest dates from Neolithic contexts cluster around 5300-5200 BP (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986; Williams 1989). There are a few earlier dates, including one of the earliest dates on a human bone from a Neolithic context, 5380 [+ or -] 90 BP (OXA-4176) from Whitwell Long Cairn (Hedges et al. 1994). However, these single early dates are discounted by Williams (1989) as being atypical or unreliable. The latest characteristically Mesolithic sites date to about 5400-5500 BP (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986; Williams 1989), so despite claims by Williams (1989) there does not seem to be a substantial period of overlap between most of the early Neolithic and latest Mesolithic dates. For the purposes of this paper, then, we consider the Neolithic as appearing in southern Britain between 5400 and 5200 BP.

Changes in the archaeological record from the Mesolithic to the Early Neolithic

The new innovations in material culture that appear in Britain with the early Neolithic, such as pottery, new lithic forms and monument building, have no apparent antecedents in the later Mesolithic. This lack of Mesolithic pottery in Britain contrasts with the situation in Denmark, to which Britain is often compared, where pottery was adopted by in the late Mesolithic Ertebolle period a few centuries before the major changes associated with the appearance of the Neolithic TRB culture (Price 1997). There are some similarities in the lithics between the two periods, as burins, serrated blades, punches and scrapers are still used, although leaf-shaped arrowheads are exclusive to the Neolithic (Pitts & Jacobi 1979). There is not a tradition of monument building in the Mesolithic, although there have been some finds of possible small houses or huts (Green 1996), but nothing approaching the level of construction seen at Neolithic sites.

There are, of course, major differences in the plant and animal remains recovered from Mesolithic and Neolithic sites, particularly in the first appearance of domesticated cattle, sheep/goat, pig and cereals in the Neolithic.

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