Finding the Coastal Mesolithic in Southwest Britain: AMS Dates and Stable Isotope Results on Human Remains from Caldey Island, South Wales

By Schulting, Rick J.; Richards, Michael P. | Antiquity, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Finding the Coastal Mesolithic in Southwest Britain: AMS Dates and Stable Isotope Results on Human Remains from Caldey Island, South Wales


Schulting, Rick J., Richards, Michael P., Antiquity


Introduction

It has long been accepted that we will always be hampered in our reconstruction of early and mid-Holocene subsistence and settlement patterns across southern Britain due to the loss of the coastline by inundation. This is unfortunate on a number of grounds, not least of which is that both ethnographic and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that the greatest potential for fisher-hunter-gatherer socioeconomic complexity is typically found among coastal groups. Late Mesolithic developments in southern Scandinavia (Fischer 1995; Pedersen et al. 1997; Price 1985) and coastal Brittany (Schulting 1996) provide good examples from a northwestern European context. In Britain, the impetus for understanding coastal Mesolithic lifeways has come primarily from a small number of sites on the west coast of Scotland. In particular, both faunal and more recent isotopic evidence from Oronsay show the high degree of reliance on marine resources on the west coast of Scotland at a point very late in the Mesolithic (Richards & Sheridan 2000; Schulting & Richards in press). But how typical is this of even the coastal Mesolithic economy, at other times and in other parts of Britain? What is the regional and temporal variability in the use of coastal resources during the early/mid-Holocene? Were some groups living year-round on the coast? Or was the coast exploited on a seasonal basis only? In the absence of coastal Mesolithic settlements in southern Britain, such questions have frequently been portrayed as intractable. We suggest here that they are not. The initial results of a research programme on human remains from Caldey Island and nearby mainland sites in south Wales demonstrate the potential of combined stable and radioactive isotopic analyses.

Stable isotope analysis has been used to reconstruct palaeodiet with great success in many parts of the world, particularly in coastal situations (e.g. Chisholm et al. 1982; Schulting 1998; Schulting & Richards 2001; Tauber 1981; 1986; Walker & DeNiro 1986). This is because, in the absence of [C.sub.4] plants such as maize and millet, the technique easily distinguishes between marine and terrestrial diets, presenting a powerful and direct means of addressing the averaged long-term diets of individuals (for reviews, see Ambrose 1993; Schoeninger & Moore 1992). Stable carbon ([[delta].sup.13]C) from a purely marine organism will typically give values of about -12 per mil ([per thousand]), while Holocene terrestrial organisms will typically give values of about -20 [per thousand] ([C.sub.4] plants overlap with marine values, but were rare in northwest Europe and need not be considered). Stable nitrogen ([[beta].sup.13]N) measures trophic level, and again can distinguish between terrestrial and aquatic (marine and freshwater) ecosystems, since the latter often have longer foodchains. These isotopic differences are maintained from diet item to consumer, and survive in bone collagen. (1) Human bone from individuals that lived near the coast and were exploiting its resources will document that fact. Even scattered and fragmentary human bones, lacking detailed contextual information, from sites that would have been some kilometres from the contemporary coastline, will reveal the use or non-use of marine resources. All that is required is human bone of Mesolithic age from contexts reasonably close to the sea.

Unfortunately, even this requirement is not easily met. Human remains dating to the Mesolithic are notoriously rare in Britain. The relatively well-known sites of the Mendips that have yielded human skeletons (Gough's Cave, Badger Hole, Aveline's Hole) would have been many tens of kilometres inland at the time of their use, and so exploitation of marine resources would not necessarily be expected. This has been borne out by an analysis of three individuals from Aveline's Hole, dating to around 9000 BP, that show no use of seafoods (Schulting & Richards 2000).

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Finding the Coastal Mesolithic in Southwest Britain: AMS Dates and Stable Isotope Results on Human Remains from Caldey Island, South Wales
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