Early Farmers and Manure: Stone Age Europeans Were More Advanced Than We Thought

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English longhorn cow.

The English Longhorn is a breed close to the cattle kept by the ancient Britons. Photographer Mirrowmere.

Our ancestors never cease to surprise us, but that’s because modern people tend to falsely think of themselves as superior to those simple stone age people.

Recently, scientific investigations have discovered evidence that neolithic farmers were using manure in a careful way far earlier than we thought. Scientists believed that the use of manure as a slow release fertilizer first began in the Iron Age, but it seems to have been much earlier than that, possibly as far back as 6000 BC, at the dawn of agriculture.

Stone Age Farming

As society re-appraises its reliance on oil-based chemical fertilizers, it is interesting to see how our early ancestors managed to thrive on more organic techniques. In a throwaway society, it is useful to see how they used their scarce resources carefully.

With hindsight it should have been clear that manure was available to the early inhabitants of Britain, as they were pastoralists who kept cattle. Francis Pryor’s work at Flag Fen revealed the existence of droveways between enclosed fields, along which cattle were driven to water. Pryor worked out their use by having the ground analyzed for phosphorus, which is found in manure and which remains fixed in soil unless plants extract it.

The early Britons didn’t keep just cattle. They feasted frequently on pork, and so pig manure was available. Clothing was often made of wool, so sheep were also present. Hindsight reveals that we should have realized that manure was not in short supply in these pastoral societies.

Now we come to middens. Anyone familiar with Mesolithic archaeology will be aware that middens, waste dumps for food and dung, were found next to Mesolithic encampments. Stone age people were as intelligent as we are, and they would have realized that plants grow well on middens. Eventually, someone would have guessed that the dung and the waste had something to do with it. This knowledge would have spread before farming developed. Indeed, is it possible that the use of manure was a precondition of the development of agriculture?

The Slash and Burn Model

Slash and burn, still occasionally practiced, is a primitive and destructive form of farming that has negative effects on the environment. The farmer exploits a bit of land, and when it is exhausted moves on to leave it time to recover. Scholars have thought that this is how early Europeans worked.

There may be some truth in it, but how soon they moved on from slash and burn is unclear. Recent research indicates that the change came quite early. This does make sense: if you build a village and a sacred landscape of stone circles etc, you are investing in a place and don’t want to move away. To stay, however, you need to keep the land fertile.

Nitrogen 15 Proves Early Use of Manure

Nitrogen 15 is a heavy isotope of nitrogen. Nitrogen 14 has seven protons and seven neutrons, but N15 has 8 neutrons, which makes it heavier than the more common isotope. For some reason N15 is abundant in manure, and this can provide information about where, and when, people have used manure.

When scientists at the University of Oxford performed stable isotope analyses on charred remains of peas, barley, wheat and lentils from thirteen early Neolithic sites across Europe, they were surprised to find high levels of N15, indicating that the use of manure began far earlier than thought. These sites were in Germany, Denmark, Bulgaria, Greece and Britain. In Britain, sites are found in the southern county of Dorset and further north in Derbyshire, a county where the bedrock is mainly limestone, and where the soils need attention for agriculture to be practiced well.

Tas de fumier en Normandie

In farmland, we often see manure, ready to be spread on the field as fertillizer. Photographer Clicbird.

Social Implications

The use of a long term fertilizer implies social stability, where farmers and their families occupy the same land for generations rather than slash, burn and move on. This reflects an investment in land.

These early Neolithic people were stable in their habitation and had an emotional tie to the land where they lived. It was this stability that allowed the creation of the great Neolithic monuments, such as Avebury and Stonehenge in England, which were developed over a period of well over a millennium. Across Britain there are ancient henges, hill forts, and circles, testimony to the stability in the landscape of people for whom it was a home and a sacred place. This stability was based on successful agriculture.

That farmers knew which crops most needed their scarce resource indicates that they were passing their knowledge on through the generations. Thus, a stable society requires not only a stable form of agriculture, but a stable system of education in skills, including agricultural skills, in which the successful old induct the young. This implies stable tribes and families.


Pryor, Francis. Britain BC. (2003). Harper Perennial.

Phys.org. Manure Used by Europe’s First Farmers 8,000 Years Ago. (July 16, 2013). Accessed July 23, 2013.

© Copyright 2013 Frank Beswick, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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