The ancient British were not cut off from Europeans on an isolated island 8,000 years ago as previously thought, new research suggests.
In a new study – published today, 26 February 2015, by Science – researchers found evidence for a variety of wheat at a submerged archaeological site off the south coast of England… 2,000 years before the introduction of farming in the UK.
The team behind the study say that the most plausible explanation for the wheat reaching the site is that Mesolithic Britons maintained social and trade networks spreading across Europe.
The researchers from England and Scotland studied two submerged sites at the extreme ends of Britain, off the shores of the Isle of Wight and Orkney, to discover sediment sequences that contained wheat grains.
Called Einkorn, the wheat was common in Southern Europe at the time it was present at the site in Southern England – located at Bouldnor Cliff. The einkorn DNA was collected from sediment that had previously formed the land surface, which was later submerged due to melting glaciers.
The work was led by Dr Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, in collaboration with Professor Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford, Professor Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School, Gary Momber of the Maritime Archaeology Trust, Dr Richard Bates at the University of St Andrews and collaborators from the University of Birmingham.
The team argue that the introduction of farming is usually regarded as a defining historic moment for almost all human communities leading to the development of societies that underpin the modern world. The researchers say their findings suggest the introduction of farming was far more complex than previously imagined.
Dr Allaby, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences, said that the einkorn discovery indicates that Mesolithic Britain was less insular than previously understood and that inhabitants were interacting with Neolithic southern Europeans. He said, “8,000 years ago the people of mainland Britain were leading a hunter-gatherer existence, whilst at the same time southern European farming was gradually spreading across Europe.
“Common throughout Neolithic Southern Europe, einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff. For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe.
“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. The role of these simple British hunting societies, in many senses, puts them at the beginning of the introduction of farming and, ultimately, the changes in the economy that lead to the modern world.
“The novel ancient DNA approach we used gave us a jump in sensitivity allowing us to find many of the components of this ancient landscape.”
The results published today were part of a wider study that tested the new methods on material from as far apart as the south coast of England to the northern shores of Orkney.
Dr Richard Bates, a senior lecturer at the University of St Andrews, led the work being done on Orkney. Although none of the einkorn DNA was found at the Scottish site, the St Andrews researcher says that the methods used could yet yield important results. In the coming months St Andrews researcher will use the same techniques to continue investigating the land of the ancestors who constructed the monuments at these iconic Neolithic landscapes.
He explained, “The novel ancient sediment DNA analysis used in the study could unlock many other secrets of long lost areas, especially those surrounding our coasts. These areas were once at the heart of different societies but the locations make their study particularly challenging.
“This study, and the possibilities it opens up for a new way of investigating lost landscapes, represents a step-change in palaeoenvironmental reconstructions. It will benefit not only the work we are conducting around the World famous sites in Orkney but extend our ability to study areas such as the drowned North Sea and similar submerged land masses around the globe”.
The research paper ‘Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8,000 years ago’ is published by the journal Science.
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