A Response to Richards and Schulting

By Milner, N.; Craig, O. E. et al. | Antiquity, June 2006 | Go to article overview

A Response to Richards and Schulting


Milner, N., Craig, O. E., Bailey, G. N., Andersen, S. H., Antiquity


We welcome the comments of Mike Richards and Rick Schulting; however, rather than attempting to close the debate on the isotope evidence and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition, as suggested in their introduction, we agree that the issues raised should be widely discussed and subject to critical and well informed scrutiny. We certainly did not attempt a 'simple outright denial of the validity of one of the methods of analysis' (i.e. stable isotopes); rather we wished to make the point that interpretations have to take into account uncertainties associated with the measurements. We have been pleased by the discussion that our article has invoked: two published responses (Barbarena & Borrero 2005; Hedges 2004) and numerous personal communications which have been supportive and critical in equal measure. In addition other papers have recently been published on similar themes for other parts of Europe (e.g. Boris et al. 2004; Eriksson 2004; Liden et al. 2004).

Space does not allow us to deal with all the points raised by Richards and Schulting and so we will address a couple of key points. Firstly, we need to find ways of reconciling the different data sets. This is particularly important for the Danish material where zooarchaeological evidence is so strong for the exploitation of marine resources in the first part of the Early Neolithic (here defined as TN1: c. 4000-3450 BC). Richards and Schulting suggest that the remains of fish and shellfish are 'largely irrelevant in the overall question of large scale dietary shifts'--fish and shellfish being the remains of individual meals which are not indicative of the overall diet of human populations. However, we would argue that these remains accumulated often over hundreds of years and therefore provide evidence of long term subsistence practices. Very often the TN1 shell middens consist of as much, if not more, food remains than the Mesolithic parts of the midden, e.g. Norsminde, Bjornsholm, Krabbesholm (Andersen 1991, 1993). In addition, most of these sites are found on the coastline and at the same locations as the Late Mesolithic ones, demonstrating a clear continuity in settlement. The same species of animals, birds and fishes are found; the only additions are a few indicators of domesticated animals. Of course we accept that there are inherent biases in the study of this faunal data, but this vast quantity of archaeological evidence cannot be dismissed simply because it cannot be reconciled with the small number of stable isotope results for this period.

If the stable isotope data is accepted as showing a terrestrial based diet we need to ask other sorts of questions which may help us explore why the zooarchaeological and stable isotope data sets appear to be opposed: Who is eating all this marine food? Are these people represented in the stable isotope data? If so, why does so much marine food waste occur and yet not show up in the stable isotopes? Is the marine food being consumed much more sporadically (so that consumption equals < 10 per cent of the individual's overall diet) and therefore is this quantity of food being spread out across a much larger population? Or, are there different groups with different diets perhaps some living a hunter gatherer life at the coast as evidenced in the Baltic (see e.g. Eriksson 2004)? Without considering these sorts of issues we cannot begin to think about subjects such as widespread taboos.

Scotland is very different to the Danish situation in that it has been possible to sample many more individuals and here we do not deny that there is a strong grouping of isotope results indicative of a terrestrial diet from about 4000 BC. However, unfortunately the only bone stable isotope evidence of Late Mesolithic diet in Scotland comes from Oronsay: a rather unique set of sites and a very small dataset. …

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