Science

Cardiff scientists pinpoint date of bovine intervention

Researchers have uncovered new evidence which highlights the point at which a diet based around dairy became prominent in Britain.

According to the research, carried out by experts from Cardiff University and the University of Bristol, it was 6000 years ago that our ancestors discarded fish from their diet, and began consuming milk on a regular basis. This was linked to the shift made at this time from hunting and fishing to farming.

The researchers were thorough in their work, examining skeletons, pots and other archaeological artifacts which date from between 4600 BC and 1400 AD to gain a comprehensive idea of what these ancient Britons were eating and drinking. 1081 fragments of ancient pottery were forensically examined for seafood traces.

The results were telling, with 99% of the earliest farmer’s cooking pots not showing any sign of seafood. Whilst there was little evidence of seafood in the pottery of this time, there was evidence of ‘a wide acyl carbon number distribution.’ This indicates the presence of ‘dairy-derived fats’, which shows how dietary patterns had shifted away from seafood.

The skeletons examined also provided useful evidence. A unique chemical signature caused by the sea, which was present in the skeletons of the fishers was notably absent when looking at the farmers who lived afterwards. Instead, ‘collagen stable carbon isotope signatures’ taken from Mesolithic and Neolithic humans showed ‘a terrestrial-based diet of coastal-dwellers’ in the more recent Neolithic age.

Dr Jacqui Mulville, who led the Cardiff research team, thought that the results might seem surprising given certain British traditions. She said ‘We like to think of ourselves as a nation of fish eaters, with fish and chips as our national dish – however, it seems that early farmers, even when they lived by the sea, preferred beef, mutton and milk.’

She also pointed out some of the unanswered questions left by the research, saying ‘why people changed so swiftly from a seafood to a farming diet remains a mystery.’ She wondered whether this was because farming was ‘easier.’ The head of the Bristol team, Professor Richard Evershed, suggested that dangerous North Atlantic waters may have made fishing with rudimentary technologies ‘difficult’.

Despite this mystery remaining unsolved, a fascinating new light has been shed on this period. The researchers have carried out detailed work on a topic that has been something of an unknown, and it is good to see Cardiff University.

Michael Arnott

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