How Stone Age Britons Had Wheat 2,000 Years Before Farming
flour in a spoon

Hunter and gatherers living in the present day British Isles were not as isolated as we once believed. Researchers have found evidence they had wheat 2,000 years before it was being grown in the area.

This discovery provides “evidence of wheat 2,000 years earlier than mainland Britain and 400 years earlier than proximate European sites,” the researchers write in their study’s abstract.

The DNA evidence comes from 8,000 year old sediment cores from Bouldnor Cliff, a pre-historic shipyard that now sits 38 feet under the water. Britain used to be connected to mainland Europe during the Ice Age. But, melting icecaps led to rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago. Still, a land bridge may have been around 8,000 years ago.

Farming didn’t reach Britain until about 6,000 years ago. So, how did these hunter and gatherers get their hands on wheat? The discovery suggests “that sophisticated social networks linked the Neolithic front in southern Europe to the Mesolithic peoples of northern Europe.” They may have traded with each other.

“We can only speculate how they got wheat,” co-author Robin Allaby tells Reuters. “It could have been trade, a gift or stolen.”

How do researchers know people in the British Isles weren’t growing wheat earlier than thought? There was no evidence of pollen in the samples.

The wheat most likely came in the form of flour. Researchers did not find any husks or seed casings in the sediment cores.

This wheat was sourced from the Middle East. Farming originated from the Middle East about 10,500 years ago. And, by 8,000 years ago – farming is believed to have only reached the Balkans region and modern day Hungary. Yet, wheat shows up in Britain. That’s about a 1,000 mile trek for some bread.

This one discovery won’t change our understanding of the spread of farming. But, it will lead to researchers taking a look at the relationships between hunter-gatherers and farmers. Somehow, wheat reached Britain way before farming. The most likely explanation is some type of trade or gifting.

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