Neolithic Peoples Loved Dairy Foods and Rejected Fish

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Supposed water tanks in Orkney Skara Brae Neolithic house. Photo by H.S. Williamson, used with permission.

Supposed water tanks for shellfish storage in Orkney Skara Brae Neolithic house. Photo copyright H.S. Williamson, used with permission.

Neolithic peoples loved dairy food so much they gave up the practice of eating seafoods, even in the northeast Atlantic archipelago where fish are plentiful, according to recent research.

Chemical tests on food left in old cooking pots confirmed the theory that the innovations of Neolithic peoples swept away hunter-gatherer eating habits in a fast changeover of lifestyle rather than a slow process of transition.

Archaeologists at Orkney’s Neolithic village, Skara Brae, previously assumed that boxes beside the dressers in houses were water tanks meant to keep seafood fresh and succulent. After all, the villagers built the houses into huge middens made of shells.

However, scientific dating of Scottish shellfish middens shows they are Mesolithic. Tests on both human bone and pottery found at over forty sites now show that seafood was not a significant component of the Neolithic diet.

Testing a Thousand Cooking Pots

Researchers at Bristol University and Cardiff University, led by Professor Richard Evershed, tested a million fragments of bone and remains of over a thousand cooking pots from British archaeological sites dating from around 4,600 BC to 1,400 AD.


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Using new techniques to detect fish oils in the pots, they discovered that over 99% of the oldest samples held no seafood residue at all.

In a previous study, carbon isotope testing of human bone from up to 5,000 years ago detected a rapid and complete change, both coastal and inland, from the marine and wild animal diet of the Late Mesolithic period. The attraction of farming was strong enough to cause the switch to eating the products of ‘domesticates’ at the onset of the Neolithic, Martin Richards suggested in Sharp shift in diet at onset of Neolithic. 

Neolithic Peoples Loved Dairy Foods

Dr Lucy Cramp’s paper, Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reported the team’s latest findings and confirms Richards’ findings. Their method of testing fat residues not only showed a lack of fish oils, it detected high levels of dairy fats retained in the pots, suggesting that skilled dairy farming was taking place.

Preference for dairy rather than seafood continued into the Middle Ages, researchers found.

Preference for dairy rather than seafood continued into the Middle Ages, researchers found. Image by Sailko.

Andrew Curry’s article, The milk revolution, outlines other research, funded by the European Union, the LeCHE project, and involved some of the same scientists as Cramp’s study.

This research shows how humans across Europe evolved genetically to gain the ability to digest dairy products so that by the onset of the British Neolithic, they were lactose tolerant.

Archaeologists found evidence of pottery cheese-making equipment 7,000 years old in central Europe.

Some suggest that some cheeses have much lower lactose levels than milk, and that lactose tolerance may have developed through a cheese and yoghurt-making stage of evolution.

Neolithic Innovative Immigrants

Findings point to a quick transition rather than a period of gradual replacement of Mesolithic hunter-gathering by Neolithic dairy farming. Experienced migrants must have introduced dairy farming, which corresponds with the pattern of development of the ‘dairy diaspora’ that the LeCHE project mapped.

North Atlantic inhabitants gave up the labour intensive hunting of wild animals, seals and shellfish in favour of dairy products and beef and mutton from domesticated animals. This abrupt and total change is not so sharply demarcated in the Baltic region, leading researchers to suggest that the North Atlantic must have become too difficult a fishing ground for its island dwellers.

Cattle graze Orkney's fields today, here seen under an August sky. Photo copyright H.S. Williamson, used with permission.

Cattle graze Orkney’s fields today, here seen under an August sky. Photo copyright H.S. Williamson, used with permission.

Cramp’s paper concludes with some speculation that milk consumption could “be of particular importance for high latitude populations where low UV light exposure can result in vitamin D deficiency and thus poor calcium absorption.”

Even today, Northern Isles weather features cloudy skies as often as not, perhaps confirming that the “calcium absorption-stimulating effect of milk consumption may have been critical in maintaining the fitness of these prehistoric farming populations.”

Switching Fish for Dairy in Island Britain

The evidence shows that the Neolithic peoples in the northeastern Atlantic islands loved dairy foods so much, and were so skilled at producing them, that they gave up fishing almost completely. British cooking pots remained largely free of seafood for 4,000 years, until the Viking era when marine dietary traces began to reappear.

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© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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