A gap in the archaeological record just prior to the arrival of farming in Britain has been filled by the bones of six humans, possibly some of the country’s last hunter-gatherers. The results are published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
The paucity of human remains during such a crucial shift in the Late Mesolithic of Britain has hampered archaeologists’ understanding of this era – a time of change in the life and ways of the people of the period. However, a recent “scientific revolution, driven by the application of new biomolecular methods”, as described in the paper, has finally unearthed this moment in the country's history.
A team of archaeologists from the Universities of York, Cambridge, and UCL used a breakthrough analysis technique on bone fragments from Cnoc Coig, a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, via collagen sequences to confirm the remnants as human and to radiocarbon date the samples.
The previously held theory was that hunter-gatherers rapidly shifted their diets with the arrival of agriculture. However, recent analysis suggests this shift was much more gradual, with hunter-gatherers still subsisting off a diet heavy in marine foods.
"Analyzing previously unidentified bone fragments shows us that both hunter-gatherer-fisher and farming lifestyles potentially co-existed on the West coast of Scotland for several hundred years,” said lead author Dr Sophy Charlton, now a research associate at the Natural History Museum in London, in a statement.
Bone fragments from the Cnoc Coig site, highlighting the range of sizes and preservation. From top, L-R, ZooMS IDs: seal, pig, remainder human. Charlton et al./Journal of Archaeological Science
The bones date to around 4,000 BCE during the Late Mesolithic, a transition period from foraging, fishing, and hunting to farming. Stable isotope analysis of the human remains revealed a strong marine isotopic signature. This suggests that hunter-gatherers kept their traditional marine-based diets for quite some time, even as farming took over farther inland.
The discovery also provides further support for the novel collagen technique, as well as a launching off point for further research.
"Our findings also illustrate how information can be obtained from previously overlooked material,” said Charlton. “So much research potential lies dormant within 'unidentifiable' prehistoric bone fragments, and there is consequently significant potential for the future application of this method to other prehistoric sites.”