Academic journal article Antiquity

Strategic and Sporadic Marine Consumption at the Onset of the Neolithic: Increasing Temporal Resolution in the Isotope Evidence

Academic journal article Antiquity

Strategic and Sporadic Marine Consumption at the Onset of the Neolithic: Increasing Temporal Resolution in the Isotope Evidence

Article excerpt


Stable isotope analyses of Mesolithic and Neolithic human bone collagen from northern and western Europe have been reported to demonstrate a sharp shift away from the consumption of marine foods at the onset of the Neolithic (Tauber 1981; Richards et al. 2003). This has led to controversy over the apparent contradictions between the Neolithic archaeology and the isotope data, with part of the discussion being presented previously in Antiquity (Richards & Mellars 1998; Schulting & Richards 2002; Bailey & Milner 2003; Hedges 2004; Milner et al. 2004; Richards & Schulting 2006; Bonsall et al. 2009). Some coastal site middens contain thousands of marine ecofacts, suggesting that these resources must have played a significant part in the subsistence base, and the suggestion that this was not the case has also raised questions about why coastal dwellers would reject a readily available food resource in the early days of establishing agriculture, especially on marginal and remote islands. The previously published work has utilised adult human bulk bone collagen which provides an average of many years' diet and is thus a relatively blunt tool providing only blurred temporal focus (Hedges et al. 2007). In the research presented here we have used a new technique which utilises high-precision dentine increments, allowing us to increase temporal resolution and identify dietary patterns over very short periods of an individual's early life. Our findings hold significance not only for Neolithic Shetland, which has "remained something of an enigma" (Sheridan 2012: 6), but also for understanding how the first farmers in marginal regions across Atlantic Europe survived during periods of resource shortages and famine. The results also address the paradox between the mainly terrestrial dietary isotope ratios of humans and the continued presence of marine food remains at some Neolithic sites.

A marginal environment for early farmers

Our study uses material dating to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from the Shetland Islands: at 60[degrees] N, these are the most northern Scottish islands in the North Atlantic (Figure 1) and an ideal place to test the hypothesis that marine resources would be included in the north-west European diet during this period if conditions were difficult. Even accounting for the Holocene hypsithermal, the climate would have been marginal for agricultural purposes and expected to generate periods of crop failure and famine (Birnie et al. 1993). According to the 'dietary shift' model, marine resources are proposed to have been abandoned by choice at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. The best place to confirm this is a coastal, marginal environment where there is every reason to believe that such resources would be key to survival.

The disarticulated remains of a minimum of 11 adults and 9 juveniles and infants (Walsh et al. 2012) were recovered from a stone-lined, sub-rectangular pit, a non-megalithic funerary monument of a type not previously suspected, that was uncovered during the 1977 construction works at Sumburgh Airport, at the southern tip of the archipelago (Hedges & Parry 1980) (Figure 2). They are the only skeletal remains of the Early Neolithic inhabitants to be recovered from these islands. The importance of this area to the colonisation of the archipelago has been further demonstrated by a Late Mesolithic-Early Neolithic sequence of middens exposed by coastal erosion at West Voe, some 400m to the south (Melton & Nicholson 2004, 2007; Melton 2009), and by recent investigations at the internationally renowned site of Jarlshof, on the opposite side of the voe (Dockrill & Bond 2009) (Figure 1).

The human remains have been dated to between 3510 and 2660 BC (14 radiocarbon dates, calibrated taking into account a marine dietary component; details in Table S1). The two superimposed middens at West Voe are separated by a layer of sand and have been dated to c. …

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