Underwater DNA Reveals that Wheat Arrived 2,000 Years Before Agriculture in Britain

1177 Underwater DNA Reveals that Wheat Arrived 2,000 Years Before Agriculture in Britain
Joe Gough/

By analyzing ancient DNA recovered from an underwater site off the south coast of England, a U.K. team reveal that wheat showed up about 2,000 years before people even began farming it in this region. The findings, published in Science last week, suggests that British hunter-gatherers were trading with European farmers in the east for the cereal grain long before agriculture was introduced in the area.

There’s been disagreement over what happened during the early stages of the Mesolithic-to-Neolithic transition -- or when farmers began replacing hunter-gatherers throughout Europe from the east to the west. Some say migrating farmers displaced hunter-gatherers in Britain rapidly; others say the adoption of agriculture on the isolated island was gradual.


Now, a team led by Robin Allaby from the University of Warwick examined the microfossils and ancient DNA in a sediment core obtained from Bouldnor Cliff, a submarine archaeological site near the Isle of Wight. They were attempting to reconstruct various floral and faunal changes in the area, which was a shipyard before it submerged around 8,000 years ago due to melting glaciers.

The researchers found ancient DNA sequences that matched strains of a Near Eastern wheat called einkorn -- but no evidence of its cultivation (like leftover husks or seed casings) and no trace of its pollen. The boat builders likely had a fondness for flat breads to complement their protein-rich diet of game and foraged nuts and plants, Allaby tells New Scientist.

Since agriculture took hold in the British Isles about 6,000 years ago, these findings suggest that hunter-gatherers in northwest Europe had developed social networks with migrating farmers thousands of years beforehand. “For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe,” Allaby says in a news release. "The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact. As such, far from being insular Mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe.”