Although previous literature ha deemed Stone Age Britons as primitive hunters and gatherers, a recent study published on Thursday suggests that this population was surprisingly sophisticated, importing wheat long before they started farming it.
Archaeological evidence in the form of wheat DNA was recovered by scientists in present day Britain dating from 8,000 years ago. The wheat DNA fragments suggest that Britons living in that period would trade or exchange this valuable seed long before the first British farmers began growing wheat. Such a discovery only proves that, across Europe, an intricate network of trade and cultural links existed.
Hunter-gatherer Communities and Middle Eastern Farmers
According to previous beliefs, farmers began moving from the Middle East and into Europe around 10,500 years ago. As they advanced westwards, this farmer population began replacing the hunters and gatherers they encountered in the territories they began inhabiting. However, archaeologists believed that these Middle Eastern farmers only reached Britain 6,000 years ago. The more recent discoveries come to contradict these claims.
As archaeologists reveal, farming began approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Near East. This period is known as the “Neolithic Revolution”. Yet during the time when, in the Near East, farmers already started to emerge, present day Britain was still populated by hunter-gatherer populations.
On the one hand, there are studies suggesting that incoming farmers first coexisted with the hunter-gatherer populations they found living in Europe, so that the process of “replacing” these people did not occur as quickly as archaeologists first believed. Then, a study published in 2013 suggested that both farmers and hunter-gatherers coexisted 6,000 years ago and buried their beloved ones in the same burial site, a cave in Germany. For the following 800 years, these populations continued to do so, proving that both the farmers and the hunter-gatherers were in close contact.
Another, even more controversial claim, came from Michael Balter who, on the 30th of August published a study suggesting that hunter-gatherer communities even acquired domesticated pigs from the farming communities they were in contact with.
Wheat Samples Dating Back 8,000 Years
The wheat samples that archaeologists found were dated back 8,000 years ago, a full 2,000 years before farming communities even began growing crops in Britain. Scientists wanted to eliminate any potential confusion sources, so they analyzed whether the DNA specimens could have arrived from elsewhere via alluvial deposition. They concluded that all their findings had been deposited in situ and could not have been the result of “modern contamination”. Because the cereal had not been grown there, scientists began wondering where it could have been imported from.
They immediately thought of trade, although the term itself, Greger Larson warns, is particularly heavy, as it “implies a relationship of exchange for mutual benefit through some economic system.”
Greger Larson is the palaeogenomis and bio-archaeology research network director at the Oxford University. He questions the term “trade” as it would mandate that Near Eastern farmers would have actually sold their product. As Larson sees it, the social mechanism behind such a trade arrangement would not be clearly defined. It’s unclear what the farmers would have received in return for their wheat, Larson said.
Bouldnor Cliff Archaeological Site
The team of archaeologists who made the discovery found the wheat DNA fragments at Bouldnor Cliff, an underwater site 11 meters below the water’s surface. Since 1999, when the site was first discovered, scientists have been hard at work at the site, which is believed to have been occupied by hunters and gatherers who supposedly build wooden boats.
Curiously enough, apart from the wheat DNA samples (actual wheat, not related plants), archaeologists also identified DNA traces of oak, apple trees, as well as a multitude of herbaceous plants). As wheat did not exist in Britain at that particular time, scientists concluded that it must have originated from the Near East.
“We start seeing domesticated wheat around 12,000 years ago, so it would have been first cultivated some time before that,”
Robyn Allaby, lead study author, says.
Origin of the Wheat Found at Bouldnor Cliff
Dr. Allaby explains that any species of wheat had been alien for the British Isles at that time. Despite the fact that the Neolithic Southern Europe had an abundance of wheat, the cereal only reached Britain 2,000 years after the samples which scientists retrieved from the underwater site. As a result, Dr. Allaby notes, einkorn would have only reached this particular site if contact had existed between mesilithic Britons and the farmers living all across Europe.
Scientists then considered land bridges as a possible explanation. If such formations would have connected the south-east British coast to Europe’s mainland, a plausible physical and cultural connection to Europe might have facilitated wheat’s entry into Britain.
What archaeologists then suggested was that the wheat’s most likely origin must have been the nearest geographical point of mainland Europe to Britain. At that time, southern French communities could have represented the best candidate, Dr. Allaby explains, as they did farm and grow wheat 8,000 years ago, while Britons did not.
“That redefines how sophisticated the Mesolithics were. These two cultures existed side by side and interacted yet maintained their separate cultural identities for 2,000 years.”
Dr. Allaby added.
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