The process whereby most or all people ceased to subsist solely on exploiting wild resources, choosing instead to adopt the farming lifestyle

As indicated above, the practices, material culture and beliefs of these first farmers in the area stand in stark contrast to those of the forager-fisher-hunters: for example, the way in which the Late Mesolithic inhabitants of Oronsay dealt with their dead (by laying them out on their shell middens to be excarnated naturally) is completely different from that practised by the farming groups, who built megalithic monuments (in the case of the Breton settlers) and timber monuments (in the case of the CB settlers) and also deposited their dead in caves. Similarly, the emphatic avoidance of marine foodstuffs as shown in the bodies of these Early Neolithic farmers stands in complete contrast to the overwhelmingly marine nature of most of the Mesolithic inhabitants of Oronsay (Richards and Schulting 2006 Schulting 2013).

A key point of interest, and of continuing debate, is how these very different communities interacted (if at all); how long the Mesolithic lifestyle based on exploiting exclusively wild resources continued after the appearance of farming; and why this lifestyle seems to have disappeared.

The currently-available dating evidence, reviewed in Section 5 of this framework, suggests that there could have been a period of several generations when farmers and forager-fisher-hunters coexisted within a few kilometres of each other, perhaps unaware of each other, in view of the low population densities involved. The strongest evidence for this is offered by recently-obtained radiocarbon dates on human and boar remains from the Cnoc Coig shell midden, which lie within the first quarter of the fourth millennium (corrected for marine effect; Charlton et al. 2016, and see also Milner 2010). Quite how long this period of overlap continued is a moot point: the ‘palimpsest’ nature of the evidence from multi-period sites such as the Islay sites discussed by Mithen et al. in  Section 5 of this framework makes it hard to be certain whether there had been genuine continuity of use of these sites from indigenous foragers to farmers, or whether in fact there had been a long gap in activity.

Whatever the length of the overlap, clearly a process of acculturation seems to have taken place eventually and possibly swiftly, with the demise of the purely fishing-hunting-foraging way of life. This is starkly illustrated in the isotopic and lipid evidence relating to human diet, with no individuals having a ‘Mesolithic’ dietary signature being known to post-date the aforementioned Oronsay shell midden individuals. (For a recent summary of the ‘diet’ issue, see Sheridan and Pétrequin 2014.) It appears that indigenous groups may well have ‘bought into’ the promise of a superficially more reliable food supply, adopting farming.

It has been argued by some (Bonsall et al. 2002) that climate change around the turn of the fifth millennium affected the switch in subsistence practice, but the evidence is not convincing, and, the author would argue that the argument fails to take into account that the appearance of ‘the Neolithic’ can be related to economic and social changes in different parts of northern France (as argued, for example, in Sheridan 2010a). For further information about the palaeoenvironmental conditions around the late fifth and early fourth millennia, see Section 4.

The key research questions are as follows:

This requires field survey, particularly in the areas around the monuments: not easy given the rough pasture that surrounds most of the candidate sites. It also requires palaeoenvironmental investigation, to check for signs of Early Neolithic cereal cultivation in the area. For dating the appearance of the Breton ‘strand’ of Neolithisation, it will be necessary to undertake excavation at ‘candidate’ monuments (ie the other closed polygonal chambers and simple passage tombs, as identified by Graham Ritchie.

  1. What exactly was the process, timing and tempo of the acculturation of indigenous fisher-hunter-gatherer groups? How late did a lifestyle based solely on the exploitation of wild resources continue? Is there any reason at all to accept Bonsall et al.’s (2002) argument for environmental change having had an impact on the lifestyle of the fisher-hunter-gatherer groups such as to make them more receptive to growing crops and herding domesticated animals?
  2. In addition to the examination of ‘Mesolithic’ assemblages for signs of ‘Neolithic’ traits (and vice versa), as Mithen advocates – something that will have to take into account any possible time interval between the deposition of the ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’ material, and the question of residuality – we need to examine and date more shell middens (cf. Bonsall et al. 2012) to assess how late the process of exploiting marine resources continued, and to what extent this was part of a purely ‘Mesolithic’-type lifestyle (as opposed to a minor element in a Neolithic lifestyle). Furthermore, work is currently underway to assess the aDNA profile of Mesolithic individuals from Cnoc Coig and their contemporary ‘Neolithic’ counterparts from Raschoille Cave and Macarthur Cave. This should reveal whether we are dealing with (at least) two discrete populations in early fourth millennium Argyll and Bute.
  3. Where did the builders of the Breton-style closed chambers and simple passage tombs live, and what was their lifestyle and subsistence practice? And when, precisely, did these putative Breton immigrants arrive?
  4. Where (in addition to the sites we already know) did the CB Neolithic settlers live, and what precisely was their subsistence strategy? Is their settlement organisation the same as elsewhere in Scotland (as reviewed, for example, in Sheridan 2007)? And are there any non-megalithic CB funerary monuments in Argyll and Bute, such as we see at Lochhill and Slewcairn in Dumfries and Galloway, for instance (Masters 1973; 1975; Millican 2012)?This, too, requires field survey and palaeoenvironmental investigation; and should any candidates for non-megalithic funerary monuments be found, excavation is recommended. The various Neolithic lithic scatters discovered as part of the Southern Kintyre Project (Cummings and Robinson 2015b) need to be investigated further, to see whether they relate to Neolithic settlement sites; in particular, the rectangular ditched structure found at Macharioch, cutting through a Late Mesolithic flint scatter, deserved further investigation to check whether it may relate to a Neolithic house or not.
  5. Why were some of the early Neolithic inhabitants buried in a cave (Raschoille cave) as opposed to a built funerary monument? In theory, if there were sufficient individuals from a range of funerary sites to provide aDNA data, we might be able to detect whether the specific choice of funerary practice related to the traditions of different groups. Currently, however, while the Raschoille Cave individuals offer excellent prospects for gaining aDNA evidence, there is a dearth of contemporary human remains from built monuments in the area, with Achnacreebeag having been looted long ago. Note that individuals from the Clyde cairn at Clachaig, on Arran – just outside the RARFA area – have been included in the GENSCOT ancient DNA programme.
  6. What was the nature of the vegetation and climate, and what was the sea level, around the late 5th and early 4th millennium? This relates to the broader need for a more comprehensive picture of the palaeoenvironment throughout prehistory, as discussed in Section 4