Archaeologists use underwater wheat to show how British Mesolithic farmers were linked to Europe

By Ben Miller | 27 February 2015

Archaeologists have plunged the murky waters of the Solent to find evidence from Britain's formation as an island 8,000 years ago

A photo of a man diving underwater
Divers head for the submerged prehistoric settlement of Bouldnor Cliff, off the village of Bouldnor on the Isle of Wight© Roland Brookes
Archaeologists say wheat traces off the Solent have revealed a “new chapter” in British and European history 8,000 years ago, suggesting a far more complex hunter-gatherer society which imported exotic food from farmer alliances in France, the Baltic and across southern Europe.

Trade and social networks would have existed across Europe via land bridges from south-east England, according to experts who found a type of wheat, Einkorn, at Bouldnor Cliff, collected from sediment which once formed part of a Mesolithic land surface later submerged by glaciers.

“Far from being insular, Mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe,” says Dr Robin Allaby, of the University of Warwick.

“Einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff.  For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe. The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact.

“The role of these simple British hunting societies, in many senses, puts them at the beginning of the introduction of farming and, ultimately, the changes in the economy that lead to the modern world.

“The novel ancient DNA approach we used gave us a jump in sensitivity, allowing us to find many of the components of this ancient landscape.”

Professor Vince Gaffney, one of the world’s most respected theorists on archaeological evidence held beneath the seas, believes hunter-gatherers had “extensive social networks” through which to exchange “exotic foodstuffs” across Europe.

“This find is the start of a new chapter in British and European history,” he believes.

“We now realise that the introduction of farming was far more complex than previously imagined.

“The research also demonstrates that scientists and archaeologists can now analyse genetic material preserved deep within the sediments of the lost prehistoric landscapes stretching between Britain and Europe.

“This not only tells us more about the introduction of farming into Britain, but also about the societies that lived on the lost coastal plains for hundreds of thousands of years.

“The use of ancient DNA from sediments also opens the door to new research on the older landscapes off the British Isles and coastal shelves across the world”

The Maritime Archaeology Trust collected the sediment samples.

“Of all the projects I have worked on, Bouldnor Cliff has been the most significant,” said its Director, Garry Momber.

“Work in the murky waters of the Solent has opened up an understanding of the UK’s formative years in a way that we never dreamed possible.

“The material remains left behind by the people that occupied Britain as it was finally becoming an island 8,000 years ago, show that these were sophisticated people with technologies thousands of years more advanced than previously recognised.

“The DNA evidence corroborates the archaeological evidence and demonstrates a tangible link with the continent that appears to have become severed when Britain became an island”.

The team took the unusual step of extracting and sequencing the entire DNA from the wheat sample. A paper in the journal Science has published the full results.

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