Prehistoric Britons Traded in Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It

Archaeological excavation of an underwater site found 8,000-year old DNA of wheat, an alien plant to England, indicating that the local hunter-gatherers were, somehow, importing it.

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Divers at Bouldnor Cliff with flints, dating from a settlement some 8,000 years old. Credit: The Maritime Trust

Remains of wheat dating from 8,000 years ago has been found in an archaeological study in a submerged site off the coast of prehistoric England. The thing is that the island was populated by hunter-gatherers who wouldn’t develop grain cultivation for another 2,000 years, which raises the possibility that the hunter-gatherers of ancient England were trading with prehistoric farming Frenchmen for the grain.

“For the British Isles, all species of wheat are alien. To say it’s wheat is to say that it’s Near Eastern,” explains Robin Allaby, the lead author on the study, "Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8000 years ago," to be published in Science on Friday, February 27.

Analysis led the team to conclude that the archaeological findings had been deposited in situ on a pristine land surface rather than arriving through alluvial deposition from elsewhere. Their analyses also demonstrated that the wheat signals they found were not a “modern contamination,” nor native to the local region. The wheat was not grown there; it had to have been imported.

In the Near East, farming is believed to have begun to develop between 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, in what is known as the “Neolithic Revolution.” But were the ancient Britons trading for wheat before they could farm?

“’Trade’ is a weighted term,” cautions Greger Larson, director of the palaeogenomics and bio-archaeology research network at Oxford University in conversation with Haaretz. “It implies a relationship of exchange for mutual benefit through some economic system.”

Divers at Bouldnor Cliff off the English coast, where 8,000-year old wheat DNA was found.Credit: Roland Brookes, The Maritime Trust

In other words, if the farmers of the Near East were actually selling wheat they cultivated, what would they be getting in return? “We’re not entirely certain of the social mechanism that enabled this wheat to show up in Britain. We don’t know how it got there, just that it is there,” Larson says.

And by being there, it ran against decades of evidence regarding the timing of the spread of agricultural products across western Eurasia, Larson sums up.

Rising seas

The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic periods were marked by both the start of agriculture in the Near East, and rising sea levels worldwide as the Ice Age glaciations melted. The startling discovery of wheat DNA was made at Bouldnor Cliff, an underwater archaeological site dating back 8,000 years – where the prehistoric men had been building boats, say the archaeologists, who found the wooden remains of their craft.

To be clear: What the scientists found was not wheat berries. It was DNA extracted from seabed sediment core samples, which, through exhaustive analysis, they proved was of proper wheat, triticum, not some related plant. Wheat did not exist in Britain of the time. (They also found DNA of oak, poplar and apple trees, and various herbaceous plants.)

Unquestionably this wheat originated in the Near East. Less clear is when cultivation in the Near East began. “That is actually a very difficult question,” says Allaby. “The process of domestication, where wheat transitioned from a wild form to a domesticated form was, it seems, quite a slow process. We start seeing domesticated wheat around 12,000 years ago, so it would have been first cultivated some time before that, because it’s the process of cultivation that leads to selection of domesticated forms. So, domesticated forms originated around 12,000 years ago.”

The French connection

Most likely, the origin of the wheat found off the British coast was from the geographically nearest farmers at the time – most likely Cardial-ware culture people in the south of France, says Allaby: They did farm 8,000 years ago, while the proto-English did not.

So, if the hunter-gatherers on the English coast had wheat, they also evidently had some sort of social interaction with the farmers in the south of France. Yet for at least 2,000 years, the one did not affect the other’s lifestyle, Allaby explains.

“That’s the interesting thing. We have a social network of interaction between Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures. We hadn’t known that before,” he says. “That redefines how sophisticated the Mesolithics were. These two cultures existed side by side and interacted yet maintained their separate cultural identities for 2,000 years.”

Tiny, unsexy farmers

Why would the hunting-gathering Britons eschew farming? “Either the ancient Britons didn’t want to farm; or alternatively wanted to but couldn’t, for some reason. Or maybe the answer is between the two,” says Allaby.

Why wouldn’t they want to? “Counterintuitively, the onset of arable agriculture is associated with archaeological record of malnutrition,” says Allaby. People grew weaker and if the hunter-gatherers of yesteryear were anything like today’s humans, they probably found big and brawny sexier than puny and picayune and, as Allaby puts it, weren’t enamored of the idea of doing what the little guy is doing.

Or maybe they couldn’t farm. The archaeological record in Europe clearly shows that agriculture repeatedly arrived, crashed and went away again for a long time, like a thousand years or so, during which time the population would revert to hunting-gathering. Nobody knows why; Allaby for one postulates that it’s because the plants these prehistoric Europeans were trying to grow had to adapt to the new northerly latitudes. In any case the upshot is that farming spread very slowly.

Man’s best wolf

Other items found at the submarine site included worked and burnt flint, corded fiber, and wood from boat making. They also found burnt hazelnut shells. Nor did man live by bread alone: the archaeologists also found remains of an “abundant presence” of bovines, and canines, either dogs or wolves.

Oooh, prehistoric pets? “I’m tempted to speculate that they’re more likely dogs than wolves because of their prevalence, but that’s early in dog-human relationship so even if they were living together, they’d have looked like wolves,” says Allaby, noting that dogs are a subset of wolves.

As for those bovines, they were aurochs (an extinct type of large wild cattle), which the archaeologists know because a meter away from the sample containing the bovine DNA, they found an auroch ankle bone.

They also found DNA of deer, grouse – and rodents, which were either eating that grain laboriously imported from the south of France (or wherever), or were being eaten themselves. If 50,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers were eating big animals and the odd plant here and there, Allaby says - by the time our clan on the prehistoric English coast existed, big game had become scarce. Rats, on the other hand, were not.

The location of Bouldnor Cliff off the coast of England, and core samples used for analysis. Courtesy of the Maritime Trust and the University of Warwick