Early farmers’ fishy menu

Agriculture may not have radically changed European diets at first

Northern Europe’s agricultural revolution got off to a fishy start. Although farmers brought animal raising and plant growing to the region around 6,000 years ago, a healthy taste for the freshwater fish and marine life favored by local foragers lasted for at least several hundred years, a new study finds.

AQUA-POT Chemical analyses of food residue in ancient northern European cooking vessels — such as this 6,000-year-old find, shown with a wooden spoon — suggest that early farmers supplemented their diets with fish. Anders Fischer

Based on chemical signatures of food residue from ancient cooking pots, farming’s introduction modified but did not radically transform diets in what’s now southern Sweden, northern Germany and Denmark, say archaeologist Oliver Craig of the University of York in England and his colleagues. That’s consistent with a gradual transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to farming, the scientists report in a paper published online October 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Although farming was introduced rapidly across this region of northern Europe, it may not have caused a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life,” Craig says.

His conclusion runs counter to a proposal that farmers swept through Europe and sent native hunter-gatherers packing (SN: 2/5/05, p. 88).

Instead, early farmers supplemented their own foods with local wild resources, including fish, when they reached coastal areas, Craig proposes. It’s also possible that foragers already living in northern Europe adopted farming practices and incorporated cultivated cereals and domesticated animals into their diet, he says.

It’s intriguing that both coastal and inland pots studied by Craig’s team continued to display signs of fish eating, but evidence for a gradual transition to agriculture remains inconclusive, remarks archaeologist Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland. The new investigation fits with a model, proposed by Pinhasi and archaeologist Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel of the University of Kent in England, that two biological lineages of farmers spread from what’s now Turkey into Europe starting around 8,500 years ago, with cultural mixing of hunter-gatherers and farmers occurring in outlying areas such as northern Europe.

Pinhasi and von Cramon-Taubadel describe this model, based on skull measurements from 30 ancient European hunter-gatherer and farming groups, in the Oct. 7 Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Craig’s team analyzed food residue in 133 ceramic cooking pots from 15 northern European sites dating from around 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. Foragers at some of these sites made pottery before 6,000 years ago, challenging the long-standing assumption that only farmers fashioned ceramic vessels.

About 20 percent of pots from coastal sites in Craig’s analysis contained biochemical traces of freshwater fish and marine foods such as shellfish. At inland sites, 28 percent of pots contained residues of freshwater fish. Biochemical signs of land animals and dairy products appeared in other vessels.

Fish and other aquatic foods were eaten for at least several hundred years after farmers arrived, and possibly for 1,000 years after agriculture got started in Denmark, Craig says.

He suspects that northern Europe’s first farmers herded animals from one grazing spot to another. They were probably about as mobile as hunter-gatherers already living in the region, Craig estimates.

Fully sedentary village life in northern Europe may not have arisen until 4,000 to 3,000 years ago, in Craig’s view.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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