Thursday 28 April 2016

New study reveals Ireland’s earliest agriculture

A new paper that I wrote with colleagues in the UK has just been published. Entitled “Farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland: an archaeobotanical perspective”, the paper was published in a major international journal, Antiquity. We examined evidence for the earliest farming in Ireland, dating to the Neolithic period almost 6,000 years ago. We found that a variety of crops were cultivated, but foraging also played an important role in the daily lives of Ireland’s first farmers.

During the preceding Mesolithic period (8000--4000 BC), people hunted, fished and gathered in their search for foods. The introduction of farming to Ireland in the centuries after 4000 BC was a hugely important shift in food procurement, and it coincided with many other changes in daily life -- new types of houses were built, people began to use pottery and new monuments were constructed to mark the final resting places for the dead.

Our new study found that we have a very long tradition of farming in Ireland. Cereal grains and chaff -- preserved through burning -- have been found by archaeologists during the excavation of many ancient houses and tombs. Based upon our extensive radiocarbon dating programme, we found that the earliest cereals date to just after 3750 BC. The most important cereal grown by these first farmers was emmer wheat (an ancient type of wheat), and barley was also cultivated. Other crops included flax. Oat and rye were not farmed in Ireland until several thousand years later.

As well as cultivated plants, we found that foraged foods played an important role in Neolithic Ireland, as evidenced by the recovery of charred nutshell and fruit remains from many archaeological excavations. When people started farming, they did not simply abandon foraging. Rather they made use of a wide variety of foods, both cultivated and gathered.

When cereals arrived into Ireland, they spread to most areas of the island within a century. But our new study has found that this ‘boom’ in cereal cultivation did not last. Around 300 years later, the archaeological evidence for cereals almost disappears. Our records do not suggest a major shift back to wild plant foods, which were the mainstay of hunter-gatherers before the arrival of farming. We argue that plant foods are not simply abandoned, and perhaps we need new approaches towards investigating the archaeological evidence that survives. The period from 3400 BC saw many changes in how people lived in the landscape. New types of houses and tombs were built, including the passage tomb at Newgrange. Changing patterns of behaviour mean that food remains become harder to detect by archaeologists. This means that our understanding of food choices becomes unclear. It is not until several centuries later, during the Bronze Age, that widespread archaeological evidence for cereals is found again.

Utilising new scientific techniques, the research team is now working to find out exactly what happened to farming during this intriguing period of several centuries. We want to find out if cereals really did disappear, the reasons for any such changes, and how this affected the daily lives of people in Neolithic Ireland. Watch this space for further results!

McClatchie Meriel, Bogaard Amy, Colledge Sue, Whitehouse Nicki J., Schulting Rick J., Barratt Philip, McLaughlin T. Rowan (2016) Farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland: an archaeobotanical perspective. Antiquity 90(350), 302–318.


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