Why Did Ancient Britons Stop Eating Fish?

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Specifically, the team looked at the ratios of stable carbon isotopes. Marine foods and land-based foods have distinct stable carbon isotope signatures, said Richards.

"We determined that after the introduction of domesticates, as well as the other artifacts associated with the Neolithic, the isotope values showed that marine foods were not used anymore," he said. "We then infer that this is a switch from wild foods such as fish and shellfish to the new domesticates that arrive at this time."

While the bone analysis alone does not directly say the shift was from seafood to domesticates, it coincides with their arrival. Richards and colleagues say this suggests that the arrival of the new farming lifestyle must have been very attractive, even to coastal dwellers who had a well-established marine economy in the Mesolithic.

Changing Diet

Richards said there are three plausible reasons why the British abandoned seafood from the beginning of the Neolithic: the domesticated plants and animals presented a steady source of food; the shift was forced by a climate change; or cultural pressure.

Of those, Richards said a climate change is the least likely since there were several climate changes during the Mesolithic yet marine foods continued to be used.

"The previous hunting-fishing-gathering way of life was extremely successful for humans—it is the main way we have obtained food for most of our existence—so it seems strange that we would give this up so readily to start farming and stock-keeping within a generation or two," said Richards.

According to Copley, this research highlights how advantageous the Neolithic diet of farm animals, dairy products, and cereals must have been. For example, he said, it allowed populations to boom and larger, more complex societies to emerge.

"Of course, it poses more questions," he said. "For example, are marine foods still consumed during the Neolithic but in much lower abundances? And why is there this very quick shift in diets?"

The carbon isotope signatures are not sensitive enough to rule out the possibility that the British had an occasional fish fillet at dinner, but it clearly shows a shift from a high-level of marine food consumption in the Mesolithic, said Richards.

Fish once again became an important force in the British diet when the Romans invaded Great Britain during the first century A.D., but even then it was likely seldom eaten and only then by the upper classes.

"In the medieval and later periods we see much more use of fish, but in Britain we never see the levels of fish consumption seen in the Mesolithic period," said Richards.

Fish and chips, the world-famous British dish, became popular in the 19th century. The battering and deep frying of the fish killed off bacteria and kept it warm for long periods of time to feed mill workers, said Richards.

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