Einkorn – the first wheat
Some of you may know that I co-authored a book called “Arable Plants – a field guide” about 12 years ago (still available from all good internet book outlets, and possibly some bookshops too: no, I don’t get a commission!).
My co-author Phil Wilson, is a real arable weed expert and wrote the technical accounts. I wrote the history and conservation sections. The story of Agriculture in Britain, we were led to believe, started about 6000 years ago, when people from continental Europe arrived, bringing seeds of ancient Wheat (known as Einkorn) and Barley, along with the weeds that grew alongside these crops, all which are native plants of the Near East. Sheep and domesticated Cattle arrived then too. The “native” British people were hunters, but mostly gatherers. They eat an awful lot of hazel nuts, and used fire to create hunting chases and glades within which they could corner and kill animals. With the arrival of the Neolithic crops and domesticated animals, the inexorable shift from gathering and hunting, to farming, started. It’s still up for debate to what extent it was an “invasion” and Neolithic people replaced the Mesolithic peoples they encountered, or whether it was a cultural shift, with more or less the same people changing the way they lived.
That was the story, until now. Underwater archaeologists have been studying Mesolithic camp sites which have lain relatively untouched under the sea; and at one particular site at Boulnder Cliff off the Isle of Wight, they have found something really extraordinary. They have found the unmistakeable signature of near Eastern ancient Wheat, in a DNA sample, from around 8000 years ago. This is 500 years before Neolithic farming started in North-West Europe.
The campsite yielded DNA from Oak, Poplar, Crab Apple and Beech DNA plus grasses and flowers, suggesting a mainly forested landscape. Remember this is land that is now 12m under the sea. 8000 years ago Bouldner was a wet wooded landscape on a tributary of the Solent River, many miles from the sea. The Solent river headed east and south to join a great river, which became an estuary, south of the Isle of Wight. This was the English Channel. Britain became separated from the Continent around the same time, possibly as a result of a Mega Tsunami. And 700 years later Bouldner disappeared under water. The archaeologists at Bouldner have found evidence of log-boats from that time.
How would ancient wheat have moved from the Near East to Bouldner? Given that the first evidence for Neolithic crops in North West Europe only appears 500 years later, it seems more likely to me that the movement was coastal, rather than by land, using small boats to navigate along the coastline of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
It is possible that Mesolithic people were growing Wheat at the time but the evidence of this was lost to the flood which created Britain as an island – of course that’s pure speculation. Whether or not the wheat was “traded” between Neolithic and Mesolithic peoples is also speculation. What is not in doubt is that the evidence is building for a sophisticated Mesolithic culture in Britain, and not small bands of hunter gatherers eking out an existence in the wildwood.