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Stone Age Britons Were Eating Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It

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Stone Age Britons Were Eating Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It

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Stone Age Britons Were Eating Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It

Stone Age Britons Were Eating Wheat 2,000 Years Before They Farmed It

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/388822209/389454455" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A field of unharvested wheat is seen in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, England, in 2012. Wheat wasn't cultivated in Britain until some 6,000 years ago, but DNA evidence suggests early Britons were eating the grain at least 8,000 years ago. Darren Staples/Reuters/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Darren Staples/Reuters/Landov

A field of unharvested wheat is seen in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, England, in 2012. Wheat wasn't cultivated in Britain until some 6,000 years ago, but DNA evidence suggests early Britons were eating the grain at least 8,000 years ago.

Darren Staples/Reuters/Landov

Scientists have learned a lot about our distant ancestors from DNA that's thousands of years old. Like the fact that we've inherited some Neanderthal DNA, so apparently our ancestors mated with them. Now there's new research from DNA that moves on from paleo-mating to paleo-eating.

About 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in the Near East figured out how to grow cereal crops like wheat. The farming culture spread, and wherever it went, people traded in their spears for plows.

That's the conventional view. Apparently, it was more complicated than that.

Evidence comes from archaeologists who've been digging into Bouldnor Cliff, a submerged prehistoric site off the coast of the Isle of Wight, in the south of Great Britain. They found tools, burned nutshells and animal remains and worked wood.

"We sort of got the lunch spot of this boat-building workshop 8,000 years ago," says Robin Allaby, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Warwick in England.

He says even though the locals could build boats, they were still hunter-gatherers. Agriculture didn't take off in Britain for another 2,000 years.

And yet he found DNA from cultivated wheat along with the lunchtime paraphernalia. He didn't find any wheat pollen at all, so it wasn't grown there. In fact, there's never been evidence that wheat was cultivated in Britain earlier than about 6,000 years ago.

Divers recover items from Bouldnor Cliff, a submerged prehistoric settlement site off the coast of the Isle of Wight, U.K. Along with lunchtime paraphernalia, divers also found ancient DNA from cultivated wheat. Courtesy of Roland Brookes hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Roland Brookes

Divers recover items from Bouldnor Cliff, a submerged prehistoric settlement site off the coast of the Isle of Wight, U.K. Along with lunchtime paraphernalia, divers also found ancient DNA from cultivated wheat.

Courtesy of Roland Brookes

Which meant the Brits must have been getting wheat from someone else, grown somewhere else.

Writing in the journal Science, Allaby says that apparently Stone Age Britons weren't isolated on their little island. It seems they were getting their wheat from Europe, where agriculture had already established itself.

"They were perfectly happy with using the products of agriculture," he says, "but they didn't actually start farming themselves. They were interacting with the farmers some ways away, contributing to this process [of creating a Neolithic agricultural society], which is not the conventional view."

He suspects that farmers from what is now France established a regular wheat trade across the English Channel, which was narrower and shallower at the time. Which meant that the Stone Age Brits could have their cake and eat it, too.

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