"The Wet and the Wild Followed by the Dry and the Tame"-Or Did They Occur at the Same Time? Diet in Mesolithic-Neolithic Southern Sweden

Article excerpt


The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in Europe is an enigmatic event. Viewed as a change from hunting and gathering to farming, it has inspired many researchers, and thus there exist many interpretations regarding the chronology, causes and manner of accomplishment of this specific "event". Many methods have been employed to study the introduction of domesticated plants and animals, one of which has had a great impact on the further interpretation of the consequences of the transition, namely stable isotope analysis.

In his pioneering work on the application of stable carbon isotopes as a dietary indicator in archaeology, Henrik Tauber (1981) published a graph which showed a general change in diet from marine resources in the Mesolithic to terrestrial resources during the Neolithic. This graph has often been quoted as a major piece of evidence for a Mesolithic/Neolithic dietary transition in southern Scandinavia (e.g. Larsen 1997; Meiklejohn et al. 1988; Price 2000; Bonsall et al. 2002; Schulting & Richards 2002a; Richards et al. 2003). Such a dietary transition also fits well with the evidence for agriculture in some areas of southern Scandinavia, being reflected in an increasing number of finds of domesticated plants and animals (Persson 1999). The model implies an almost evolutionary approach to the introduction of agriculture, people abandoning the more "primitive" way of life as hunter-fisher-gatherers in favour of the more "advanced" policy of farming. However, later studies of Neolithic diet in southern Sweden employing the same method, i.e. stable carbon isotope analysis, have pointed to a continuous use of marine resources in some areas (Liden 1995). In this paper we challenge the idea of a general European dietary transition from marine resources during the Mesolithic to terrestrial resources during the Neolithic.

Material and methods

Human bones and teeth from Mesolithic and Neolithic skeletal remains of both humans and animals were subjected to stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses, which supply information about the individual's protein intake. The stable carbon isotope value ([delta][sup.13]C) indicates the frequency of marine vs. freshwater or terrestrial protein input to the diet, whereas the stable nitrogen isotope value ([delta][sup.15]N) is dependent on what level in the food chain the protein derives from. These stable isotope analyses were performed by mass spectrometry, measuring the ratios of [sup.13]C to [sup.12]C and [sup.15]N to [sup.14]N relative to a standard (PDB for carbon and AIR for nitrogen), and expressing the stable isotope values as per rail ([per thousand], parts per thousand). The tissue used for analysis is collagen, the protein which makes up the bulk of the organic component in bone and teeth. Bone is constantly being remodelled during the individual's lifetime, which means that the stable isotope signature of adult bone reflects the average diet over several years prior to death (for a discussion of bone collagen turnover rates, see Liden & Angerbjorn 1999). The dentine in teeth, on the other hand, is not remodelled, and thus stable isotope values for tooth collagen actually reflect the period in life when the teeth were formed, i.e. childhood.

Collagen was extracted according to Brown et al. (1988), and the stable isotope analyses performed using a Carlo Erba NC2500 elemental analyser connected to a Finnigan MAT Delta+ isotope ratio mass spectrometer run in continuous flow mode. The measurement uncertainty was [+ or -] 0.1 per mil for both [delta][sup.13]C and [delta][sup.15]N.

We analysed 19 Mesolithic samples of human bone or teeth representing 12 individuals (Table 1, Figure 1) and 20 faunal samples representing the following species: red deer (Cervus elaphus), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), elk (Alces alces), aurochs (Bos primigenius), wild boar (Sus scrofa), brown bear (Ursus arctos), grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus), dog (Canisfamiliaris) and white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) (Table 1). …