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030908 Study Says Stone Agers Preferred Meat

September 24, 2003

Surf or turf? If you've faced that decision in a restaurant, consider what Stone Age people in coastal Britain went through, with a traditional seafood diet on one hand and newly domesticated plants and animals on the other.

A new study says that about 6,000 years ago, they chose turf in a big way.

Scientists had not known how fast domesticated plants and animals caught on with the ancient Britons, with some suggesting it took centuries. The new work indicates the switchover from seafood happened very fast, in less than 100 years and maybe within a generation or two, said lead study author Michael P. Richards.

"I must admit I was very surprised," said Richards, of the University of Bradford in England.

The work echoes similar findings of smaller studies from Denmark, northern France and Portugal, suggesting the rapid switchover took place all over the European coastline at the time, Richards said.

The new study, which involved chemical analysis of ancient human bones, appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Richards said it's not clear why coastal people turned away so abruptly from successful fishing and gathering of shellfish, turning instead to crops like wheat and barley and domestic animals like cattle, pigs and sheep.

Stephen Macko, a geochemist at the University of Virginia who's done similar research, said the study was interesting. But he said he was not convinced that it proved a rapid diet shift, because it included too few bone samples from just before the proposed time of the shift.

The study analyzed bone samples from 183 early Britons, most of whom had lived close to the Stone Age coasts in what is now Scotland, Wales and England.

For the coastal people, results show a sharp shift at around 6,000 years ago that indicates a switch from a marine-based diet to a terrestrial one. Richards said plentiful remains of domesticated plants and animals at archaeological sites suggest the land-based food was not being hunted or gathered in the wild.

The diet shift was detectable because bone collagen accumulates dietary proteins, which in turn contain differing ratios of two kinds of carbon. Proteins of marine-based foods contain a different ratio from proteins of land-based foods.


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