Saturday 6 August 2016

Determining the diets of Late Mesolithic Humans at Cnoc Coig, Scotland.

In recent years isotopic and molecular analysis methods have transformed archaeology, enabling modern archaeologists to study the diets of and relationships between ancient peoples in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. One of the areas where these techniques have been very useful is the study of dietary and population changes during the transaction from Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherer societies to Early Neolithic farming societies across Europe. with genetic analyses able to track how movements of populations related to the introduction of new technologies and isotopic studies able to determine the diets of individuals for which only fragmentary remains are known.

While this has greatly improved our knowledge of this transition in mainland Europe, our understanding of the same period in the British Isles has been hampered by a severe lack of Human remains from Late Mesolithic sites. One area where some such remains have been found is the island of Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides, where disarticulated Human and animal remains have been recovered from a number of shell middens. Remains from one of these, Cnoc Coig, have been studied using modern molecular techniques, suggesting that these bones, a selection of 49 small fragments, principally from the hands and feet, come from at least six different individuals, that they ate a diet very rich in seafood (predicted to be an indicator of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle) rather than terrestrial livestock (predicted to be a indicator of farming), and that they date to slightly before 4000 BC (Neolithic pottery has been found at other sites on the West Coast of Scotland dating from about 4300 BC onwards).

In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science on 2 August 2016, Sophy Charlton, Michelle Alexander, Matthew Collins and Nicky Milner of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, Paul Mellars and Tamsin O'Connell of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, Rhiannon Stevens of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London and Oliver Craig, also of the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, examine a series of small fragmentary remains from the Cnoc Coig site previously not considered identifiable, or only doubtfully listed as Human. The majority of these bone fragments did not come from the main shell midden, but rather were recovered from a trench dug close to the structure in 1975; all of these fragments having come from a single layer and therefore being presumed to have come from about the same time.

A total of 20 bone fragments were selected for use in the study, fifteen from the trench and five from the main midden. Charlton et al. attempted to extract collagen from these fragments, with nineteen yielding sufficient collagen for identification, of these two of the fragments were identified as having come from Seals (Pinnipedia sp.), and three from Wild Boar (Sus scrofa), an animal thought ton have been introduced to the Inner Hebrides from the mainland by Early Neolithic farmers.

Selection of bone fragments from the Cnoc Coig assemblage used within this research; highlighting the range of sizes, elements and preservation. From top, L-R, ZooMS IDs: Seal, Pig, remainder Human. Charlton et al. (2016).

An isotopic analysis of collagen from the bone fragments again suggested that the Humans had a diet largely of seafood, while the Seals were (as predicted) exclusively seafood eaters. The Boar, however, showed signs of a more varied diet, with two fragments having come from animals with a typical herbivorous diet, but the third showing signs of a more omnivorous diet with a high intake of marine foods. This is not a typical diet for Boar, and is highly supportive of the idea that this individual may have been a domestic animal being fed an atypical diet by its Human owners (a herbivorous diet for the other Boar does not rule out their being domestic animals, as Boar being kept at different locations by different people would be expected to have different diets.

It was possible to obtain carbon isotope dates from four of the specimens, two Human and two Boar fragments. The first Human fragment yielded a date of between 3991 and 3702 BC, while the second yielded a date of between 3944 BC and 3649 BC; the two Boar samples gave dates of 3982-3803 BC and 3977-3803 BC respectively, all consistent with the arrival of the earliest Neolithic Farmers on the West Coast of Scotland, and suggesting a mixed culture, with a population still largely dependent on hunted and gathered seafoods but starting to experiment with introduced domestic animals.

See also... remains from Middle Neolithic deposits at the Pena d’Água Rock-shelter of Portugal.                                                    Middle Neolithic remains are known from a number of archaeological sites across Portugal, and have been studied since the nineteenth century. However historically almost all studies of this material have concentrated on funerary behaviour rather than... first dairy farmers in Finland.                  Dairy farming (keeping Mammals in order to consume their milk or products derived from it) spread through Europe as part of the ‘Neolithic Package’ of technologies, which originated in the Middle East about 11 000 years ago. Despite this development... palliative dental filling from the Neolithic of Slovenia.                                                 Dentistry is known to have been practised by the Ancient Egyptians, and several examples of putative...
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