Wheat reached England before farming

Hunter-gatherers may have traded for agricultural products 8,000 years ago

wheat map

GRAIN TRAIN  Agriculture spread from what’s now Turkey along southern (purple arrow) and northern routes (yellow arrows) into Europe. DNA recovered from soil at the underwater site of Bouldnor Cliff indicates that wheat reached England at least 2,000 years before it was first grown there.


Larson/Science 2015

Hunter-gatherers living on England’s southern coast imported wheat 2,000 years before agriculture sprouted in the British Isles, a new study suggests.

This trading among hunter-gatherers and farmers laid the groundwork for agriculture’s spread across Northwest Europe, propose archaeogeneticist Oliver Smith of the University of Warwick in England and his colleagues. Until now, researchers have contended that migrating farmers rapidly sent European hunter-gatherers packing or gradually converted them to an agricultural lifestyle.

DNA extracted from soil at a roughly 8,000-year-old site called Bouldnor Cliff, now submerged off the Isle of Wight, matches that of wheat domesticated earlier in or near what’s now Turkey, the scientists report in the Feb. 27 Science. Farmers in Turkey had domesticated wheat and several other plants by 10,500 years ago. Crop growing started closer to England in Western France around 7,600 years ago, 400 hundred years after wheat had reached Bouldnor Cliff. And cultivation in England began much later, about 6,000 years ago.

AQUA FINDS Divers hold stone artifacts found at a submerged English site where hunter-gatherers acquired wheat products 2,000 years before farming reached that part of the world. The Maritime Trust

Excavations by divers at Bouldnor Cliff have recovered stone tools and other remnants of ancient human activity. Smith’s team obtained DNA from four radiocarbon-dated soil samples at Bouldnor Cliff. A peat bog had sealed off the site before rising seas covered it shortly after 8,000 years ago. Recovered DNA came from trees, grasses and herbs, as well as domesticated wheat. The scientists found no evidence that wheat was grown at Bouldnor Cliff. Surprisingly sophisticated trade networks must have linked at least some European hunter-gatherers to advancing agricultural populations, Smith’s group contends.

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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