Neolithic peoples from Britain and Ireland ate a lot of dairies and nearly no fish

15 Feb
I just discussed again the genetic sweep that apparently has happened in Europe after the Neolithic strongly favoring the selection of alleles that allow the digestion of lactose (the sugar present in milk and often in other dairies) by adults. However our knowledge of ancient European genetics is probably not sufficient (nor that of lactose tolerance genetics) and in any case the question remains, where did those lactase persistence (LP) alleles come from if all ancient Neolithic remains test negative?
An interesting possibility is opened by another recent study, not at all genetic in nature but rather bio-archaeological:
Lucy J. E. Cramp et al., Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2014. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.2372]


The appearance of farming, from its inception in the Near East around 12 000 years ago, finally reached the northwestern extremes of Europe by the fourth millennium BC or shortly thereafter. Various models have been invoked to explain the Neolithization of northern Europe; however, resolving these different scenarios has proved problematic due to poor faunal preservation and the lack of specificity achievable for commonly applied proxies. Here, we present new multi-proxy evidence, which qualitatively and quantitatively maps subsistence change in the northeast Atlantic archipelagos from the Late Mesolithic into the Neolithic and beyond. A model involving significant retention of hunter–gatherer–fisher influences was tested against one of the dominant adoptions of farming using a novel suite of lipid biomarkers, including dihydroxy fatty acids, ω-(o-alkylphenyl)alkanoic acids and stable carbon isotope signatures of individual fatty acids preserved in cooking vessels. These new findings, together with archaeozoological and human skeletal collagen bulk stable carbon isotope proxies, unequivocally confirm rejection of marine resources by early farmers coinciding with the adoption of intensive dairy farming. This pattern of Neolithization contrasts markedly to that occurring contemporaneously in the Baltic, suggesting that geographically distinct ecological and cultural influences dictated the evolution of subsistence practices at this critical phase of European prehistory.

Not only fish consumption was pretty much abandoned in Britain and Ireland with the arrival of Neolithic (only recovered under Viking influence many millennia later) but the most striking fact is that it was replaced by milk as main source of proteins. 
This fact, considering that farmers studied in Central Europe and Iberia have systematically tested negative for lactase persistence, really opens an avenue for the possible origins of this nutritional adaptation because it is most unlikely that they were such notable dairy consumers without the corresponding digestive ability (even cheese may be harmful to lactose intolerant people unless it is aged, while yogurt was almost certainly not known yet in Europe). 
While the evidence comes from the Atlantic Islands, it is worth to notice that their chronologically late Neolithic has its origins in the much older agricultural cultures of NW France, another blank spot in the ancient DNA map of Europe. Nowadays NW France is high but not particularly high in this phenotype but SW France and Basques have among the highest LP scores (both phenotype and rs4988235(T) genotype) in Europe, together with the Atlantic Islands and Scandinavia. 
Then again it is worth recalling that one of the first areas where the rs4988235(T) allele is found is in the southern areas of the Basque Country, with clear signs of two different populations (one lactose tolerant and the other lactose intolerant) being still in the first stages of contact and mostly unmixed.
This leads us to the issue of Atlantic Megalithism (tightly associated to Atlantic Neolithic) and its still unsolved, but likely important, role in the conformation of the modern populations of Europe. 
Whatever the case the first farmers of the islands were heavy dairy consumers, although in Britain (but not in Ireland and Man) they eventually derived into heavy meat eaters later on:

Figure 1.

Prevalence of marine and dairy fats in prehistoric pottery determined from lipid residues. (af) Scatter plots show δ13C values determined from C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids preserved in pottery from northern Britain (red circles), the Outer Hebrides (yellow circles) and the Northern
Isles of Scotland (blue circles), dating to (a) Early Neolithic, (b) Mid/Secondary expansion Neolithic, (c) Late Neolithic, (d) Bronze Age, (e) Iron Age and (f) Viking/Norse. Star symbol indicates where aquatic biomarkers were also detected. Ellipses show 1 s.d. confidence ellipses
from modern reference terrestrial species from the UK [19] and aquatic species from North Atlantic waters [13]. (gi) Maps show the frequency of dairy fats in residues from Neolithic pottery from (g) Early Neolithic, (h) the Middle Neolithic/Secondary expansion and (i) Late Neolithic. Additional data from isotopic analysis of residues from Neolithic southern Britain (n = 152) and Scotland (n = 104) are included [19,20].

The data of this study also suggests that the so much hyped high-meat “Paleolithic diet” is more of a Late Neolithic (Chalcolithic) thing, with the real hunter-gatherers of Europe being more into fish in fact.

Correction: I wrongly reported the main European lactase persistence SNP as rs13910*T, when it is in fact rs4988235(T) (already corrected in the text above) This was caused by the nomenclature used in the Sverrisdóttir paper, where it refers to it as -13910*T, which must be some other sort of naming convention. Thanks to Can for noticing.


10 responses to “Neolithic peoples from Britain and Ireland ate a lot of dairies and nearly no fish

  1. Grey

    February 16, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Interesting stuff.

  2. andrew

    February 16, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    This study makes me wonder if there is something in milk (unpasteurized at this point in history), perhaps a probiotic element, that helped early farmers digestively process Fertile Crescent domesticated plants in their diet, or to obtain some other nutrients that were lacking in the package of domesticated plants, that was not missing in the hunter-gather-fisher package of food. If unpasteurized milk fosters gut bacteria that allow you to process your staple grains more efficiently, that could have had a huge survival impact on early farmers.

  3. Grey

    February 17, 2014 at 1:46 am


    Yes, something very specific like that which has gone unnoticed so far.

  4. Maju

    February 17, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    I don't where you want to reach to, really, Andrew.

    On one side West Asian farmers are not the ones with high levels of LP nor with strong documented use of milk, so I'm perplex that you mention them.

    On the other, the parsimony principle suggests that the reason is most likely simpler: milk has a high caloric and protein content, as good as meat, and you don't need to kill the cow or goat to get it. It's a bit like the golden eggs goose, right?

    If so the issue is why certain ancient populations had such dire need of calories and/or proteins, something that seems to have two main explanatory hypothesis:

    1. Atlantic agriculturalists were less able to exploit cereals and legumes, possibly because the humid climate. If so, milk would have provided a key resource for them.

    2. There was growing severe social inequality since the Chalcolithic (fact) and the masses largely lost access to agricultural food, particularly in the hard times, controlled by the elites. However they still had ample access to goats and their milk, what proved decisive in their survival, at least for those with the ability to digest milk. (This is my own hypothesis, discussed elsewhere).

    Possibly both elements converge. But explanation #1 is not sufficient to explain the high frequencies of LP phenotype (different and unknown allele) in some Mediterranean areas like Central Italy, so I would think that there is more than just climate issues at play here.

  5. About Time

    February 23, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    Interesting stuff. Key insight that Atlantic paleos were more “fish folks” since that makes a big difference in cultural orientation. Water, estuaries, lakes, rivers, coasts, islands will be more sought after than “big green fields” (that's for cows).

    What you are saying about cows and goats makes the whole ancient religious custom goat “sacrifice” make a lot more sense.

    For goats, Its something that poor/average income people do in really hard times (also means social distress and pressure) because the milk is a big loss.

    Wrt Chalcolithic class structure, this could have an elite/class implication with cows (the rich man's property or literally chattel). Times get tough and even the Chalcolithic kings/etc eventually might have to give in and distribute beef to hungry workers and peasants to save their status in the community. Ie the otherwise hard to interpret “bull sacrifice” mytheme (some variants of it at least).

  6. Maju

    February 23, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    What goat sacrifice? I am not aware of goat sacrifice being of any relevance in European traditions. It seems more a Semitic thing and, even there, the cheaper alternative to sheep sacrifice.

    Some European traditions (ancient Basque religion particularly) had the goat, particularly the black he-goat, in very high esteem. Among Basques it was considered protector of the house and I have seen at least one such case myself (quite dissuasive but calmer than dog – goats are very cold blooded). It was the main animal associated with Goddess Mari, although other types of livestock (cows, rams and horses) were also her symbols sometimes (but these were red, and She wore red also in human form). For what I have read, only (red?) rams were sacrificed to Mari but they were abandoned in the mountain, never slaughtered. They are a gift and not sin-transference magic, as may happen in Hebrew religion.

    Instead food remains such as tripes were offered to the “imps” and it was said that these in exchange helped with farm labors by night. I interpret this as attracting wild boars to get them plowing a plot but unsure.

    As for bullfights and similar, I believe they were originally mostly bravery and skill shows for the men taking part in them. A dangerous game which you begin as teenager with bullocks, possibly tied to a pole and/or with protected horns and some may continue in adulthood as prove of their “manly worth”. This last eventually became heavily ritualized animal-torture business but the core of the show in any case is the skill of the bullfighter, not the bull.

    IDK, Dinka young men have to walk several times on top of a large number of cows arranged in line in order to become officially adult (if they fall they fail forever). It's possible that bullfights had something of that long ago, in a more martial era.

    But sacrifices as such those of IE cultures, which slaughtered some animals to honor the gods. The essence of sacrifice is to give something you value in hope of getting divine favor in exchange. Depending on which contexts it may be just the priests who eat the meat or it may be burned to ashes, what has no social sharing value, unless it is merely symbolic. What is measured if anything is your generosity towards the social (or personal, it has an intimate facet too) symbols embedded in the religious sphere but it does not need to manifest in social sharing as such.

  7. About Time

    February 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    I'm a bit of a materialist who is interested in religion. I always wonder what nontangible personalities like “gods” relate to in material history or emotional lives of people. So to me the “gods” sacrificed to must be emblematic for something in “real life” even if it's something nebulous and invisible (like pervasive social resentment of rich landowners during famines – or even the social hierarchy itself with its many barely perceptible and never discussed externalities).

    It's not clear to me at all that Semitic cultures are non-European or at least separate from Europe. Maybe we will see genomes from Chacolithic – Bronze Age Spain etc to give us more information.

  8. About Time

    February 25, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Sorry to double post – slightly off-topic, but I saw a comment in a book at one point that the best textual fit for the Kurgan culture artifacts isn't Indo-European at all (which actually tends to “mother goddess” worship in almost all cases), but rather the male pantheons of the Semitic world. The author was making the point facetiously to make another point (that we can't read languages from non-linguistic artifacts), but the maybe stands on its own.

    For all we know, the Kurgan culture or ANE was somehow related to Semitic languages at least as much as to Indo-Europeans. In the far west/southwest, maybe the original R1b bearers were some kind of epi-Akkadians or epi-Hyksos, in complete contrast to what people usually assume about these things.

    History has strange twists like that.

  9. Maju

    February 25, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    In case it may interest you, I think that Europe had essentially the following religious layers since Neolithic:

    1. An open monotheism with dual male-female characteristic, found historically in ancient Basque religion (mythology), some Hindu variants (Shaktism, Shaivism) and even in schematic form in Daoism (ying-yang). It was probably a cthonic religion centered in fertility and perpetual creation. In Hesiod's version: this is the origin, when from Chaos emerged Gaia and Eros. I'm particularly intrigued by the Greek divine name Gaia, because in Basque “gai” (nominative “gaia”) means very important things: (1) matter, substance, (2) matter again but in the abstract sense of “what's the matter?” and such, (3) potential, capability (“gai izan”: to be able, “ezkongai”: engaged person, groom or bride, where “ezkon(-du)” is to marry). It's even part of some other words like “why” (zer-gai-tik: lit. by matter of what). So I strongly suspect Gaia to be a Vasconic remnant of major implications.

    2. An astronomical layer maybe related to Megalithism represented by Uranos and the Basque god-without-mythology Urtzi (Ortzi, Ost), which embodied sky gods (or the sky itself) until the Middle Ages (cited by Aymeric Picaud: “et Deus vocant Urcia”), which left its legacy in the name of weekdays (osteguna, ostirala) or meteorological phenomena (ortzadar, oskarri, etc.) It is unclear if this is a mere personification of the sky itself, hyped because of astronomical/astrological culture.

    3. In the Aegean and surely in Italy, the Kronos/Saturn layer, which seems agricultural but secondary. I suspect this one to be related to Tell Halaf and Vinca-Dimini.

    4. The Indoeuropean layer.

    5. The Hebrew layer (Christianity but also Islam and in the North Caucasus at least Rabbinic Judaism).

    In my understanding only the fifth one is Semitic (although of course Phoenician gods also influenced Southern Iberia back in the day). However the oldest layers, no. 1 and 3, are almost certainly original from West Asia, and may have therefore also influenced the proto-Semites of old.

    I do not see any obvious Semitic influence in Europe. Venneman's “Semitic” is actually something restricted to the Atlantic Islands and in fact just a single grammatical trait also shared by some non-semitic languages of West Asia. It may be an areal thing that migrated Westwards or even developed independently. Semitic as such had not evolved yet in the European Neolithic, we would have in any case to think in terms of proto-Semitic.

  10. Maju

    February 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Your second Feb 25 comment was somehow forgotten in the moderation queue, sorry about that.

    You say that Indoeuropean religion “actually tends to “mother goddess” worship in almost all cases”. I just cannot agree with that at all. IE religion is clearly male-centric and both religion and culture tend to be quite misogynistic. Not more than pre-Hebraic Semitic ones. Just think that the hijab is actually of Greek origin, not specifically Arabic nor Muslim but Byzantine in fact, and then ponder the pitiful situation of women in classical Greco-Roman societies. The few exceptions like Hypathia or Sappho were all Asian actually, possibly reflecting a slightly better preservation of women rights in Anatolia than in IE Europe, whatever the reason. Even Romans considered Etruscans (non-IE but highly influential in early Roman culture and technology) as “perverts” and “effeminate” because they dined with their wives and not separately.

    Nordic pantheons were not spared from this IE macho-centrism: almost all gods are male, with females not just sparse but also secondary (Freja) or reduced to the role of “evil” (Hel).

    Everywhere it is the pre-IE element which presses from below in favor of the goddesses and their ancient much more dignified role. However the patriarchal trend continued and was reinforced even more by the Hebrew religion (Christianity, Islam). Only now, in Late Modernity, we rediscover, not with difficulty, that there were other more ancient religious substrates which left their legacy in various forms: relegated female roles in Patriarchal pantheons of IE/Semitic origin or more genuine remnants in ancient Basque religion or the more aboriginal Hindu variants of Shakti/Shaivism (which were surely important in the return of post-Vedic, i.e. reformed, Hinduism after the Buddhist interlude).

    … “the male pantheons of the Semitic world.”

    They are not the same ones. Patriarchy or more severe forms of this social structure surely evolved independently in many places. Pastoralism was probably a key element in the promotion of male-centrism (possibly because men have more mobility or maybe also because from managing livestock to slavery there is just one little ethical step).

    … “the Kurgan culture or ANE”…

    Kurgan peoples may have greater ANE influence but they are not the same by any means.

    “the Kurgan culture (…) was somehow related to Semitic languages at least as much as to Indo-Europeans”.

    What are you saying?! Kurgan peoples were the original Indoeuropeans themselves. There is no archaeologically consistent model to explain Indoeuropean languages other than the Kurgan theory. Everything else fails miserably.

    “maybe the original R1b bearers were some kind of epi-Akkadians or epi-Hyksos”

    Nonsense! Most likely R1b (European variant) has no relation whatsoever with Indoeuropeans but much less with Semites. Other variants may have some relations with Tocharians (Central Asian branch) or Chadic peoples (Central African branch) but they are in any case very specific one-on-one relations and not really related to R1b in Europe.


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