Origins 1: Britain goes nutty?

A relative of mine has recently asked me how agriculture came about in the first place. It’s a fair enough question. We’re all so familiar with the concept of farming, that it’s hardly obvious how our distant ancestors moved from hunting and gathering to tilling the hateful earth. Indeed, I don’t (yet) have an answer to my relative’s question, but I thought I should start putting one together. And to avoid anything so strenuous as making a plan, I’ve decided to write these “Origins” in the order that things come to my attention, rather than the order in which they happened… not least because the chronology of early farming might prove to be a little tricky.

Well, what better place to start than Britain itself, home to this blogger, and subject to a recent article in that venerable warhorse Antiquity (Stevens & Fuller 2012). This article begins by claiming to rewrite the early history of Britain – no small claim! And as a bonus (for me), it’s written by two archaeobotanists, so how could I resist reviewing it here on Farming Unearthed?

For the uninitiated, it’s worth stating at the outset that we’re talking here about the Neolithic – the ‘new’ stone age, between about 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, a period which is broadly characterized by the widespread adoption of both farming and, increasingly, sedentary settlements. So how did this major change occur, and how quickly? As Stevens & Fuller describe, previous scholarship can be roughly divided into ‘abrupt’ and ‘gradual’ models. In the former case, the Neolithic starts with an agricultural bang; in the latter, agriculture is gradually adopted more and more from the later Mesolithic, through the Neolithic, and into the Bronze Age (pp.707-8). So what happened in Britain? And how on earth can we find out?

Stevens & Fuller’s favoured approach is thoroughly archaeobotanical: that is, they study the remains of ancient plants – specifically, the charred remains of cultivated and wild food plants. Fortunately, organic remains such as these can often be radiocarbon-dated, and the authors have compiled an impressive database with hundreds of dated items from Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age excavations in Britain. Basically, they chart the occurrence of crops (especially cereals) over time, and compare it to that of wild food plants (especially hazelnuts, which survive in particular abundance).

In this way, they find some intriguing patterns. Firstly, Britain’s first domesticated crops seem to appear pretty early in the Neolithic, soon after 4,000 BC, with a relatively rapid uptake across the British Isles. Secondly, however, the occurrence of crops – relative to wild food plants – apparently tails off around 3,300 BC. In other words, their database has few if any dated crop remains for the ‘Middle’ and ‘Late Neolithic’, while hazelnuts continue to occur throughout these periods. Cereals don’t make a comeback until the Middle Bronze Age (around 1,500 BC).

Stevens & Fuller therefore conclude that cereal-farming, although introduced in the Early Neolithic, was then abandoned during the millennia that witnessed the construction of monuments including Stonehenge. Only in the Middle Bronze Age did cereal-farming really set in for good. The  abandonment coincides broadly with some other perceived archaeological patterns: population decline and monument construction (including Stonehenge). By way of explanation, the authors suggest that climatic deterioration, causing a run of bad harvests, may have led to the abandonment of early cereal-cultivation. But palaeoclimatology can be a rather slippery subject so, as usual, I’ll tip-toe carefully around it…

I’m not a prehistorian, so I don’t feel qualified to comment too specifically on this paper. But I did find it fascinating. A relatively simple methodology (collecting figures and tracing patterns) has shown intriguing, unexpected results. This aspect particularly appeals to me, because it’s not unlike my own research. Archaeobotany so often languishes in specialist appendices of site reports with little attention to its (potentially very great) significance, so it’s pleasing to see plant remains taking centre stage in this article. But as the authors stress in their conclusion, the result is a very broad picture – broad in terms of geography and chronology – and of course it’s possible that the overall patterns may change considerably as more data become available. Even so, perhaps my favourite conclusion is this one (p.720):

“…the paper demonstrates the limitations of using traditional period divisions and highlights the need to escape the tyranny of the ‘Neolithic’ label, and its assumption of unchanging village farmers.” 

A good point well made. I like period divisions as much as the next archaeologist – but we shouldn’t let them get the upper hand! Food for thought indeed…



Stevens, C. & Fuller, D. (2012). “Did Neolithic farming fail? The case for a Bronze Age agricultural revolution in the British Isles”, Antiquity 86, 707-722.

One thought on “Origins 1: Britain goes nutty?

  1. Pingback: Origins 6 – Fashionably early? | Farming Unearthed

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