4.4.1 Food and Transition to Farming


A great deal of attention has been focussed on Mesolithic subsistence, and the relationships between mobile foragers and available resources (see ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1). As much of the Mesolithic evidence in the Highlands is from midden sites, these have heavily influenced the interpretation of food to the detriment of wider nutritional and resource studies. Mesolithic shell middens do occur in the Highlands (see section 4.3, Tables 4.2 and 4.3 for a list of sites), but intensive survey work such as that of the Scotland’s First Settlers (SFS) project (Case Study Scotland’s First Settler’s Project) found fewer than anticipated (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009). This suggests that other types of sites need to be considered. Archaeologists need to be wary of drawing wide ranging conclusions from a few, possibly atypical, sites and focus on both recovering more data across the board, and the use of multi-proxy data.

Evidence from shell middens and cave sites does, nevertheless, provide information on what larger animals would have been available to Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunters in the Highlands. At the caves of Creag nan Uamh (MHG11410) and at Uamh an Claonaite brown bear (dated to 11641–11411 cal BC, 26095–25654 cal BC and 48088–43514 cal BC), reindeer (dated to 12129–11861 cal BC) and wild horse (dated to 11628–11400 cal BC) were found. Wild horse and bear were clearly in the Highlands by the time the Palaeolithic lithics found at Shieldaig and Skye were in use. Bear would not have been present in full glacial conditions, since most cave entrances would not have been accessible (Birch and Young 2009).

The evidence for Mesolithic animals in Scotland to date is outlined in Kitchener et al (2004; see also Barnett 2019). The presence of evidence from Highland sites depends whether or not there is good preservation. From Sand, Wester Ross (MHG3592; Case Study Sand), there was evidence of red deer and probably wild boar, as well as fox, dog, wolf, otter and badger. Most of the animal bone from Sand was fragmentary and unidentifiable, but it does provide information about butchery practices. Interestingly, despite the coastal distribution of sites and good excavation strategies there is only limited evidence for seal or whale (Parks and Barrett 2009). A similar rich record was recovered from An Corran, Skye (MHG6497; Case Study An Corran), although the site is complicated by later use and mixing of deposits in antiquity. Red deer dominated the mammal record here; the lack of evidence of primary butchery among the bones suggests that they were killed elsewhere (Bartosiewicz 2012).

Shell middens generally preserve good evidence of fish and shellfish. At Sand a large fish assemblage comprised mainly wrasse and cod, and their size suggests inshore fishing (Parks and Barrett 2009). A bone object from Risga, Lochaber has been identified as a fish hook, which is a very rare find if the identification is correct (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 3.3.2).

Different middens are dominated by different shellfish (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 4.2.2). At Sand shellfish was abundant, especially limpets, periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and even crabs (Milner 2009a; Milner 2009b). The evidence was interpreted as suggesting fairly non-intensive collection as the midden is considered small when compared to others in Europe. Alternatively, processing may have occurred on the shore, perhaps when the weather was good. Shellfish had many uses:  as food, bait, decoration, a raw material, and, in the case of dogwhelks, a source of dyestuff (Milner 2009a).

Similarly, midden sites in the Highlands show differential exploitation of birds. Sand in Wester Ross was dominated by razorbills and guillemots, while across the sound at An Corran, puffin dominated the bird remains (Bartosiewicz 2012, 57). The great auk is rare in the Scottish Mesolithic record, but find sites include Risga, Lochaber (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 3.3.2) and An Corran, Skye (Bartosiewicz 2012, 57). Both the bird and fish finds can also supply evidence of seasonality (Parks and Barrett 2009; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009 9.4.9).

Wild plants were also collected, with hazelnuts by far and away the most common surviving evidence due to their preservation when charred (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1). Abundant evidence of hazelnuts also survives from Sand (Austin 2009). Other plants are likely to have been exploited although less easy to document (Mithen 2000).

Limited isotopic data elsewhere in Scotland shows a dietary distinction between Mesolithic fish eaters and Neolithic meat – and cereal – eaters. The problem, however, is the lack of human remains for isotopic analysis in the Highlands, which is also an issue in much of Scotland (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.2.3).

Transition to Farming

The transition to farming is still little understood for Scotland and the Highlands. At present, the constraints of the archaeological record mean that researchers rely on information from outwith the Highlands, and on traditional archaeological sources such as stylistic analyses of pottery and stone tools. Elsewhere the contribution of information from genetic analyses, in particular, is helping to refine interpretation.

At this point, it is worth recalling Wicks and Mithen’s (2014) postulation about the timeline of the Mesolithic, where populations are rising until around 4300 BC and then declining until around 3800 BC prior to the advent of the Neolithic (see 4.3.2). Does the lack of later sites reflect this, or does it reflect our inability to locate those sites? More sites, more information and improved analysis – including dating – will all help to produce a more nuanced picture.

The national ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.2 outlined the two main theories as of 2012 for the transition to agriculture. The first suggested farming and other related aspects of agriculture arrived in Scotland through networks of trade and exchange, with indigenous adaptation. The second theory was the direct colonisation from the continent, accounted for the advent of farming, pottery and other new innovations.

However, since 2012 traditional studies of the transition to farming have been revolutionised by more recent aDNA research. These aDNA studies support the theory of continental colonisation. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of Mesolithic human remains from the Highlands to refine this interpretation. Issues such as overlapping populations and lifestyles therefore remain to be explored. For example, human remains from the Oronsay middens suggest the possibility that a Mesolithic lifestyle continued up to c 3850 BC (Mithen 2017 5.2.2). Without more sites, better dating, good stratigraphy and preservation and ideally human remains the evidence from the Highlands currently cannot contribute to this debate. Further work at Tarradale, Easter Ross (Case Study Tarradale Mesolithic Shell Midden) may shed light here, as initial trenching suggest occupation that covers this time period.


Case Study: Scotland’s First Settlers Project

Case Study: Sand

Case Study: An Corran

Case Study: Tarradale Mesolithic Shell Midden

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