March 01, 2015

8,000 year old wheat in Britain

Britain received farming later than most of Europe, but perhaps it received one of the products of farming well before any farmers set foot on the island. I've always wondered if news (and at least some products) of the agricultural revolution spread far and wide before the revolution itself did. Did foragers at the northwestern end of Europe hear stories of the strange new people that had already appeared 8,000 years ago on the opposite end of the continent?

Was this an isolated incident or will we be finding wheat elsewhere in pre-farming Europe? 

Science 27 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6225 pp. 998-1001

Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years ago 

Oliver Smith et al.

The Mesolithic-to-Neolithic transition marked the time when a hunter-gatherer economy gave way to agriculture, coinciding with rising sea levels. Bouldnor Cliff, is a submarine archaeological site off the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom that has a well-preserved Mesolithic paleosol dated to 8000 years before the present. We analyzed a core obtained from sealed sediments, combining evidence from microgeomorphology and microfossils with sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) analyses to reconstruct floral and faunal changes during the occupation of this site, before it was submerged. In agreement with palynological analyses, the sedaDNA sequences suggest a mixed habitat of oak forest and herbaceous plants. However, they also provide evidence of wheat 2000 years earlier than mainland Britain and 400 years earlier than proximate European sites. These results suggest that sophisticated social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe to the Mesolithic peoples of northern Europe.



Anonymous said...

I cant access the full copy yet but I think it is unlikely that this was first generation trade goods. It would have been used, and stored very small pockets that we would have to be very lucky to stumble over.

According to Wikipedia "The oldest evidence of domesticated emmer wheat has found near Damascus, Syria dating from 7,650 to 8,200 years BC. "

This site is at least contemporaneous and potentially older.

It is more likely that this was growing wild wheat. Wild yeast is at least 17,000 years old.

I have long suspected that many folk had an agricultural tool kit long before the neolithic. When the climate improved folk in China and the Near East where able to implement this tool kit as the climate became favourable.

Perhaps others also started to use/cultivate this valuable food but the evidence of it became buried under rising sea levels, and cultivation did not become viable again for many years. Folk would have lived mainly around the coast. As the map below shows, Western Europe lost more than the near east. And of course there were flat areas of high fertility, rainfall and sunlight that were more suitable for agriculture than others.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Hunter gatherers moved around the landscape and took their supplies with them. Near to where I live, we have the some of the highest concentration of flint finds in the British Isles, yet there is no flint locally. They brought it from the Yorkshire Wolds to their summer hunting grounds where they could get furs, antler and bone, which they couldn't find back on the coast. The interesting aspect of this discovery is that they took starches with them. We know hunter gathers today get starch from plants such as the sago palm and we assume that hunter gatherers ate starch, albeit, from wild plants. The neolithic is about cultivation of plants and domestication of animals. It isn't about discovering new foods. But perhaps it is not surprising that milled grains were taken on travels. Flours travel very well. No seeds were found as far as I understand it. They weren't transporting seeds for planting. Just the end product.

LivoniaG said...

It's a little surprising that hunter-gatherers are expected to stay in one place. I mentioned Lewis Binford's work on "mesolithic" economies and how in temperate climates they demand quite a bit of travel. There is good reason to think that hunter-gatherers would have traveled among framers and particularly would have gone south when the weather or climate called for it. There's no reason to think European HGs would not have crossed over into "western Asia." If we can only go by burials, we may be missing a lot of gene flow. Burial might not have been a common custom with people who were always on the move.

eurologist said...

The dating so soon after the demise of Doggerland is curious.


Two things:

(i) the wheat is, by DNA, positively identified as domesticated Einkorn.

(ii) you are off by 2,000 years - easy mistake to make - this is 6,000 BC, i.e., about 400 years before the beginning of LBK.

This all makes it very astounding, that wheat should have traded that far. Or, perhaps it indicates (as it must have been) good trade relationships with (most) HGs, and also the intriguing possibility that HGs were made "addicted" to agricultural products, thus easing the later spread of agriculture into Europe.


Grains were stored and transported - not flower. Since the whole grain was milled, the flour did not last long; it becomes rancid within a few weeks without air-tight containers and refrigeration.

Anonymous said...

eurologist : "The dating so soon after the demise of Doggerland is curious."

This is a good point. Smith et al do not address it, favoring weakly substantiated idea of surviving land connection, but if the date really is bound so tightly to 8000 BCE this probably involved sea commerce between mainland Europe and Britain.

I found some discussion of this idea here.

Unknown said...

No grains at all were found. Nor were any traces of bran from milled husks found. No cereal pollens were found to indicate that grains were grown. Only the germ and or endosperm dna was found in the sediment. There is nothing to indicate that grains were not grown in Britain and in the absence of any bran, whole grains and stones to mill the grains, the wheatgerm dna in the sediment is reported by Nature: "must have come from a distant place, perhaps from the Balkans or the south of France, which Neolithic farmers had already reached, the researchers conclude"

Strandloper said...

Planting wild seeds has most likely been practiced for hundreds of thousands of years. If you spend time in nature it is impossible to not understand that a seed in the ground with the right amount of sunlight and water will produce a plant or tree. I assume, we have been manipulating our environment and planting wild seeds for as long as we have been Human. If a plant provides food, shelter or clothing it is only logical to do whatever you can to facilitate the growth of that plant or tree.

Also, I think that hunter gatherers where mainly sedentary. If you have access to a good animal or plant source you can not leave it unprotected or it will be someone else's when you get back. Only those living in the margins would need to migrate.

Extensive trade networks most likely connected all of Europe together. Wild seed would have been one of the things people traded with their neighbors.

People also trade stories. At some point, people would have began to hear stories of distant lands where others where depending more and more on seeds they planted. Eventually,
they would have heard stories of how people had managed to stabilize a seed so that it could planted and the a desirable outcome that could be depended on. When domesticated wheat seeds arrived, they where most likely first used by people who had already been planting wild grasses for assorted purposes.

People where primed for agriculture because they had been practicing a wild form of it for as long as they had been in Europe. But it was not till the Holocene that the climate became stable for long enough, so that people could do the work to stabilize seeds for dependable farming. That was achieved in the middle east first. Yet, the idea had always been there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the correction Eurogenes. Teaches me to try and write anything sensible with kids screaming at each other behind me. :/

It seems this was a settlement on flat land near to a river mouth.

Pine forests transitioned to hazel/oak and the hazelnuts were harvested and used as food. I wonder if the hazel was cultivated deliberately in a similar way to the Papuans?

All the other DNA is assumed to be plant growth. It seems reasonable to expect the wheat was also. How likely is it that they just "happened" to sample a granary? An in anycase some of the grain would naturally sprout. If they had the domesticated grain then it was almost certainly being used.

There is also mention of an unusually sophisticated axe apparently 2,000 years ahead of its "time".

"The period of occupation is late Mesolithic but the discovery of tangentially split timber and a carefully prepared bi-facial flint axe demonstrate technologies not apparent until the British Neolithic."

Cardial pottery is known to have spread rapidly along the Med coast in what is assumed to be boats of some kind, and the location fits with a marine connection.

Bouldnor Cliff (IMO) seems to be transitional Cardial era or preCardial neolithic settlement!! Albeit no one has found any pots.

Anonymous said...

I found the full paper here:

The DNA analysis also picked up:

Bos (interpreted by the authors as wild Auroch)
Interestingly there was a LOT more cow/sheep/goat (Bos and Bovidae) DNA than deer DNA (Cervidae). I would like to believe that this might be herding but maybe deer were harder to catch.

Solanaceae (no comment by the authors).
Potatoes, Tomatoes etc would really be freaky. I can hear the Atlanteans stirring already. The only reasonable Solanaceae I might expect in Britain at that time would be the psychotropic herbal medicines. This would fit the roses they also found (had medicinal uses)

Canis (interpreted by the authors as dogs or wolves)

Deer, mice/rat, salmon, birds, a bunch of plants and possibly bear (from supplementary).

eurologist said...


Thanks for the link. I don't see open water at that point as a problem, at all. Clearly the people of Doggerland and surrounding areas were very skilled with boats, given the prominent seafood and seabird resources and abundance of rivers and lakes and saltwater coastline. By 8,000 BCE, the people on both sides of the Channel were most likely still essentially the same - just now, they needed to carry out their trade partially via boat.

Unknown said...

These are the calcuklated coastal changes over the last 16,000 years. 'Land Bridge' is a misnomer.

Rokus said...

'The only reasonable Solanaceae I might expect in Britain at that time would be the psychotropic herbal medicines'
This wouldn't surprise me at all, since one of the main cultures of LBK - at least in the Netherlands - was the poppy. Nobody thinks they grew such quantities just for the poppy seed (Moon-seed in Dutch).

Jeunesse had already 'suggested that agricultural products moved ahead of the front of Neolithization into Mesolithic zones'. This new evidence strongly favors previous suggestions that neolithic farmers indeed arrived in NW Europe at the consent of local hunter-gatherers (e.g. Peeters et al., 2004). This may have gone further than a symbiotic relationship, for the locals even may have actively invited the farmers to grow their agricultural merchandise on territories still controled by the native Mesolithic consumers.

Grey said...

Parts of SW Britain have an exceptionally mild climate because of the Gulf Stream.

John Rudmin said...

I wonder if it was a basecamp of maritime neolithic people harvesting or trading for some British resource.

dbnut said...

Hi, Dienekes

You stir up all kinds of imaginings, with your wondering about long-range news.

With no grounding in archaeology, history, anthropology, etc, I'm at a loss to figure out how communities interacted before the advent of farming.

I can just about believe that during favourable climate periods in Europe (for example), communities of hunter-gatherers could develop over centuries into Sprachbunds hundreds of miles in extent.

What would happen at the borders with different populations? Would they tend to avoid each other, or might they often find they had a basis for trade?

Perhaps only through long-term trade and interpreters would it be possible to learn of distant parts and peoples.

Of course, riverine or sea routes could also bring long-range contact to a forager's doorstep if a savvy trader spotted a worthwhile opportunity.

Can you recommend any reading about this?

I've actually read all the other comments (at last) and *hey* what a load of other great ideas!