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200,000 fish bones

11 February 2016

At www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-02/e-2fb020816.php … some 200,000 fish bones were discovered in and around a pit in Sweden that has been dated over 9000 years ago to the early Holocene era, deep in what is known as the Mesolithic, has been somewhat of a surprise and it is set to change some of the perceptions of archaeologists. The research is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science 66 (Feb 2016) and the discovery shows pretty conclusively that Mesolithic people living in a remote part of northern Europe were far from being primitive hunter gatherers. Indeed, they must have lived a sedantory life (possibly seasonally moving around the near landscape) as the fish bones show they were able to store large amounts of fermented food – also indicating a substantial population (or extended family group).

It seems that hunter gatherer societies of the Mesolithic were actually more advanced than previously realised as fermenting fish is an alternative to salting them. In other  words, the idea that hunter gatherers were not grunts is becoming clearer and clearer – and why not as we know that Native American tribes had a complex culture  and it was not all about riding around and spearing the odd bison, or stampeding them off a cliff face. In fact, it looks like there were quite a few similarities, as far as culture is concerned, between the early Holocene people of northern Europe and those of N America. In addition, they were not too different from people in the Near and Middle East of the same general period – although Neolithic and practising farming, they had developed this idea out of nurturing particular plants as food sources, and this also involved seasonally harvesting of nuts and managing herds of what were to begin with, wild animals. Ther pre-farming people of Mesolithic Europe shared a common culture from northern France, across the Channel (then little more than a large river and floodplain), the British Isles and Dogger Land (the N Sea basin) into Denmark and southern Sweden to Poland and beyond. We know that people were semi sedantory at places such as Star Car in Yorkshire and Blick Mead in Wiltshire, but it seems the same was true of Scandinavia. They were able to store food by fermenting fish and it would seem to suggest they were not culturally inferior (as mainstream liked to portray them) but rather innovative.

Fermenting fish preserved it without the use of salt and this also suggests they were capable of feeding a lot of people. The species were freshwater fish and it is interesting to note that freshwater species are still an important part of the diet in countries such as Poland – and carp ponds were a common feature of medieval estates in the UK.

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