Why Did Ancient Britons Stop Eating Fish?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2003

When cattle, sheep, pigs, and wheat arrived on the shores of Great Britain about 5,000 years ago, fish quickly fell off the Neolithic menu, according to an analysis of human bones scattered throughout the island.

The research helps resolve a debate over whether the adoption of domesticated plants and animals introduced to Great Britain from the European mainland was a gradual or rapid process, said Michael Richards, an archaeologist at the University of Bradford in England.

"The traditional archaeological evidence is somewhat ambiguous, hence the debate," he said.

By 4000 B.C. the archaeological record shows that pottery and large stone-built tombs and domesticated plants and animals were present in Great Britain, but it is not clear whether they replaced the marine-based hunter-gatherer lifestyle quickly or piecemeal over several hundred years.

Mark Copley, a chemist at the University of Bristol in England who studies the Neolithic diet by analyzing residues left on shards of ancient pottery, said understanding how quickly diet changed in England provides insight to what happened to the people who lived in Great Britain during the Mesolithic (9,000 to 5,200 years ago). The ensuing Neolithic period (5,200 to 4,500 years ago) is the last phase of the Stone Age.

"Farming really took off in Britain during the Neolithic. The main questions concerning the speed of change relates to how quickly Mesolithic peoples adapted—or otherwise—to the new farming methods and/or the spread of farming into Britain by new farming communities," he said.

The research by Richards and colleagues Rick Schulting at Queen's University Belfast and Robert Hedges at the University of Oxford tracks the shift in diet by examining the dietary signature stored in the bones.

They find that the shift was rapid and complete at the onset of the Neolithic. "Marine foods, for whatever reason, seem to have been comprehensively abandoned," the researchers conclude in the September 25 issue of the journal Nature.

You Are What You Eat

As the maxim "you are what you eat" goes, our bones and bodily tissues are made up of elements taken from the food we consume. As a result, our bones and bodily tissues contain a record of the food we have eaten over the course of our lives.

When we die, our skin usually decomposes, leaving behind bones. By examining the elements in the bones of a person long dead, researchers can determine the main constituents of that individual's diet.

Richards and colleagues looked at the dietary signatures left behind in bones of inland and coastal-dwelling inhabitants of Britain during the Neolithic and the preceding 3,800 years (Mesolithic) to determine what they ate.

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