Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos

The appearance of farming, from its inception in the Near East around 12 000 years ago, finally reached the northwestern extremes of Europe by the fourth millennium BC or shortly thereafter. Various models have been invoked to explain the Neolithization of northern Europe; however, resolving these different scenarios has proved problematic due to poor faunal preservation and the lack of specificity achievable for commonly applied proxies. Here, we present new multi-proxy evidence, which qualitatively and quantitatively maps subsistence change in the northeast Atlantic archipelagos from the Late Mesolithic into the Neolithic and beyond. A model involving significant retention of hunter–gatherer–fisher influences was tested against one of the dominant adoptions of farming using a novel suite of lipid biomarkers, including dihydroxy fatty acids, ω-(o-alkylphenyl)alkanoic acids and stable carbon isotope signatures of individual fatty acids preserved in cooking vessels. These new findings, together with archaeozoological and human skeletal collagen bulk stable carbon isotope proxies, unequivocally confirm rejection of marine resources by early farmers coinciding with the adoption of intensive dairy farming. This pattern of Neolithization contrasts markedly to that occurring contemporaneously in the Baltic, suggesting that geographically distinct ecological and cultural influences dictated the evolution of subsistence practices at this critical phase of European prehistory.

Figure 1.

Prevalence of marine and dairy fats in prehistoric pottery determined from lipid residues. (af) Scatter plots show δ13C values determined from C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids preserved in pottery from northern Britain (red circles), the Outer Hebrides (yellow circles) and the Northern Isles of Scotland (blue circles), dating to (a) Early Neolithic, (b) Mid/Secondary expansion Neolithic, (c) Late Neolithic, (d) Bronze Age, (e) Iron Age and (f) Viking/Norse. Star symbol indicates where aquatic biomarkers were also detected. Ellipses show 1 s.d. confidence ellipses from modern reference terrestrial species from the UK [19] and aquatic species from North Atlantic waters [13]. (gi) Maps show the frequency of dairy fats in residues from Neolithic pottery from (g) Early Neolithic, (h) the Middle Neolithic/Secondary expansion and (i) Late Neolithic. Additional data from isotopic analysis of residues from Neolithic southern Britain (n = 152) and Scotland (n = 104) are included [19,20].

Figure 2.

(a) Partial high-temperature gas chromatograms showing total lipid extracts from three sherds above mass chromatograms from aliquots analysed using GC/MS operated in SIM mode for the detection of (b) C18–C22 DHYAs (as tris-trimethylsilyl derivatives) and (c) C18–C22 APAAs (as methyl esters; electronic supplementary material, tables S1 and S2). Components were identified based upon the presence of identical chromatographic peaks for the characteristic fragment ions and molecular ions at the expected retention times. Residue (i) is from the Neolithic settlement at Braes o’Habreck on Wyre, the Orkney Isles; (ii) is from Cille Pheadair, South Uist; and (iii) is from Jarlshof, Shetland; only (ii) and (iii) contain detectable marine biomarkers, with (iii) displaying the strongest signatures. Filled circles represent free fatty acids with carbon number x and degree of unsaturation y. Retention window: (a) 5–35 min, (b) 23–30 min and (c) 24–36 min.

Figure 3.

Multi-proxy palaeodietary information from the Western and Northern Isles of Scotland and mainland northern Britain. (a) Mean δ13C values from bulk human bone collagen [2127] with error bars showing 1 s.d. (b) Proportions of fauna bones in prehistoric assemblages determined from NISP. Owing to the over-representation of shellfish, this class has been excluded; however, shellfish comprise just 1.3% of Neolithic assemblages. Faunal skeletal assemblages from the Mesolithic from this region are sparse, and comparable published datasets almost non-existent; the Mesolithic bar here therefore represents the faunal data from a single site of Northton, Isle of Harris [28]. Although no marine mammals were recorded at this site, a high number were recorded at Oronsay [29]. (c) The percentage of pot lipid residues containing components diagnostic of aquatic fat processing and (d) the percentage of pot residues that were classified as dairy fats.

Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos.

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