of subsistence patterns in Mesolithic Western Europe using faunal and human
remains from shell-middens
Anth 450, Archaeological theory
Perhaps the most commonly studied aspect of past cultures is garbage.
People throw out trash and allow it to accumulate in middens which
archaeologists find today. For the
coastal areas of Western Europe, that rubbish usually takes the form of shell-middens. Shell middens are often conspicuous mounds on the flat
coastal landscapes. They contain
mostly the shells of various species that people exploited for food.
The main reason these mounds are so conspicuous is that with shellfish,
the remains take up about twice as much space as what is eaten.
In areas where people exploited large amounts of shellfish, the middens
left behind are also very large. The
size of shell middens can be misleading about the importance of shellfish to the
people who ate them. It takes
50,000 oysters to equal the calories provided by one red deer, yet the oyster
shells take up many times as much space. Red
deer could have been over 60 percent of a people’s diet, but the abundance of
shells makes it appear as if shellfish were more important.
Western European shell-middens are the result of people who
exploited coastal resources about 5000 years ago.
Although shellfish formed only a small portion of their diet, the remains
of the shells have preserved the evidence of everything else the ate.
Because of the calcium present in shells, a non-acidic environment exists
that is conducive to the preservation of bone.
The analysis of bone found in middens can provide detailed information
about the subsistence strategies of the [SHS1] people
who left the shell-middens. Faunal analysis can provide knowledge of which animal
species the people hunted, when they hunted
them, and how they used them.
The coastal areas of Denmark and Portugal are two areas where
archaeologists have intensively studied shell-middens.
Faunal analysis of middens has led to reconstruction of
subsistence patterns for these two areas.
I will compare evidence from Denmark and Portugal, showing that two
distinct subsistence patterns existed in Mesolithic Western Europe.
I will also present evidence from the specific study of mammalian and
human remains from the Cnoc Coig midden of Oronsay island, Scotland. I will use this to demonstrate how archaeologists use faunal
analysis to determine the type of subsistence pattern used by the inhabitants.
In Denmark, it seems most probable that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers
occupied permanent year round base camps near the coast, while specialized
hunting parties occupied seasonal camps, obtaining different resources.
Base camp sites can be identified by the size of the shell-middens as
well as the food remains present. Because they were occupied by more people for
longer periods of time, the base camps have the largest middens as well as the
most varied faunal remains. Mesolithic
peoples often set up base camps in sheltered bays or estuaries, areas close to
both marine and terrestrial resources.
The people staying at the base camps would have continually caught
available fish and shellfish while receiving other game from the hunting camps.
Those hunting parties staying on the coast would catch marine species
such as porpoises, cod and mackerel, swans, ducks and seals. The parties sent inland would have hunted such terrestrial
species as deer or wild boar. The
specialized hunting camps have smaller middens as well as an overrepresentation
in the midden of the specific animal being hunted. Archaeologists can also distinguish base camps and hunting
camps by establishing the season of their use.
Base camps of course would be occupied all year, with different
specialized camps occupied only
The easiest way to determine the season of occupation is to establish the
presence of migrating animals in the midden.
Scientists can also do this by determining the age of juveniles of
species that have specific and known breeding seasons.
The latter technique is most commonly used with terrestrial species like
red deer. If the jaws of juvenile
red deer are present, then the tooth eruption pattern can provide an age for the
individual. Counting their age in
months from the month they were born provides the season when they were hunted.
In the case of Denmark, many of the smaller camps had specialized
economic activities centered on the hunting of migrating sea animals.
There were also camps focused on the hunting of porpoises and others
focusing on swans and ducks. All of these animals are known to migrate to the waters off
the coasts of Denmark from other areas in the winter. Some seasonal camps have an abundance of cod and mackerel
present in the middens and both of these species migrate to Danish waters in the
summer. In the autumn parties could
easily hunt the harp seals that were migrating into nearby shallow waters and
hauling out on to rock skerries. When
hunting parties went out to obtain marine species they would camp near open
shoreline or on nearby islands.
Seasonal analysis of red deer remains found in Danish middens shows that
parties hunted them year round. Parties
would camp inland and return to the base camp
with meat and raw materials. Wild boars were hunted by these parties
going inland during the winter. Evidence
suggests that red deer and wild boar are the only terrestrial species hunted for
food, since they are the only ones found with signs of butchering within the
middens. Since most of the deer and
boar remains represent only those parts used for tool manufacture, it is likely
that these terrestrial species supplied only a minority of the Mesolithic
peoples’ diets. The pattern found
in Denmark represents the first type of subsistence pattern, which is found in
A different subsistence pattern has emerged for Portugal.
Rather than occupying permanent base camps, it seems more likely
Mesolithic hunters and gatherers had two base camps, occupied at different times
of the year. In autumn and winter people stayed at base camps near the inland
ends of large estuaries. In the spring and summer people camped in more open coastal
areas. Because the people would
move the base camp once a year to follow resources, fewer specialized camps had
to be established for hunting. Whereas
in Denmark, small groups moved to the shore to hunt and fish seasonally, in
Portugal, the whole group would move to the shoreline.
The Mesolithic people of Portugal would set up specialized camps for
catching meagre, a type of fish that migrates to the Portuguese waters in the
summer. In the winter people
staying at the base camp would hunt red deer and wild boar.
This pattern, where two base camps are occupied for two seasons each,
represents the second subsistence pattern, which is found in southwestern
The island of Oronsay, off the west coast of Scotland in the inner
Hebrides islands, has an unusually high amount of shell middens for its size.
Extensive research of the site makes it a good example of the specific
methods used to analyze mammalian remains, to determine when they were hunted
and how they were used (Grigson and
Mellars 1983). I will also use the
site as an example of how to determine which subsistence pattern it falls under,
that of northwestern Europe or Southwestern Europe.
The island of Oronsay is currently about 6 square kilometers in area.
During the Mesolithic occupation however, it was probably less than 4
square kilometers. Currently, the
island is unable to support any trees, due to high winds, but probably had some
forested areas during the Mesolithic. The
island did not, however, support any large terrestrial species such as deer or
pig. The dates for the occupation
of the island are fairly certain and are around 5500-6200
For the remains studied, the archaeologists attempted to determine the
species, the age and sex of the individuals, what season they were hunted in and
for what purpose they were used. Both
MNI and NISP figures were calculated. Archaeologists identified
and analyzed four main species from Cnoc Coig.
In order of abundance they are gray seal, otter, red deer and wild pig.
Of the total mammalian remains recovered, gray seals represent 60
percent. Using petrous bones from the rear of the skull the MNI was figured to
be at least nine individuals. The
archaeologists established three age groups for the individuals represented,
young pups up to five weeks old, juveniles that were one to three years old and
adults. There were nearly equal
numbers of males and females present.
The presence of the young pups provides seasonal evidence.
Assuming gray seals of the past have the same breeding season as gray
seals near Oronsay today then the pups were born and hunted during September and
October. Gray seal pups are
extremely easy to hunt using clubs and provide about twelve to eighteen
kilograms of meat and twenty to thirty kilograms of blubber.
Adult female seals are also vulnerable during this
season, but males would mostly be vulnerable during molting season from march to
may. The molting season for females
is from January to February. This
provides two possible scenarios, either the seals were hunted from September to
October and the males were intentionally selected for their size, or they were
also hunted from January to May(Grigson and Mellars 1985).
Analyzing the seal remains alone does not provide enough evidence for
either situation, but I believe evidence presented in this paper below will
support the latter scenario.
Using the MNI, it was calculated how many of each bone type could be
expected if entire carcasses were present. A ratio was figured for the observed
and expected numbers with the purpose of illustrating whether any bone type was
over or underrepresented. Taking
into account the differential preservation of certain smaller bones, the
archaeologists concluded there were no gray seal bones significantly
underrepresented. This means that
the hunters took whole seal carcasses to the site for butchering and most
probably consumption. Like modern
Inuit people who exploit seal, those on Oronsay most likely used the gray seals'
meat and blubber for food and fuel, and its hide for material. Seals make up a large part of the diet of modern Inuit
peoples, and since seals represent the majority of the remains found at Cnoc
Coig, this may have also been the case on Oronsay.
If this is so, then the
inhabitants probably hunted seal for more than two months out of the year.
The second most represented species at Cnoc Coig is otter.
Otters, like seals, were accessible from Oronsay.
One hundred and twenty-three finds of bones and teeth represent otter,
with an MNI of six to seven. Otters
do not have a defined breeding season so people could have hunted them
throughout the year (Grigson and Mellars 1985).
The ratio of expected to observed frequencies of bones is similar to that
of seals, implying the hunters brought the whole carcass to the site for
butchering. There is, however, one underrepresented bone type, the
proximal metapodial end. The
expected rate for this bone is twelve to fourteen, but there was only one
present. This indicates that the
proximal metapodial ends were intentionally removed.
This is most likely the result of the animals being skinned with the
proximal metapodials being removed with the hide.
Preliminary spatial analysis shows there are possibly one to two whole
carcasses represented in the midden, implying they were not butchered for their
meat. Given this scenario, the
hunters probably took whole otter carcasses to the site and processed them for
their hides. Some may have been processed for food.
Modern day Inuit who rely heavily on seal rarely eat otter, using only
the hides. Evidence suggests a
similar pattern existed on Oronsay.
In the case of red deer and pig, both were hunted somewhere other than
Oronsay. Both have similar ratios
of expected to observed frequencies. As
for the deer, the majority of the finds are antler, which provide some possible
seasonality. The presence of one
antler base in the process of shedding would have had to been taken from an
animal in April. The rest of the
antlers could have been obtained at various parts of the year, taken off the
ground or off an animal. As with
the pig remains, there is a significant lacking of meat bearing bones. Both the pelvis and scapula are underrepresented given the
expected frequencies if whole carcasses were present. Therefore, it seems there would have been no significant
butchery of pigs or deer at the site. It
is still impossible to tell from the given evidence whether or not pig and deer
were butchered or consumed somewhere else.
The evidence does show that at the very least raw materials were
collected and brought back to the island.
The evidence so far indicates that gray seals and otters were hunted from
the island itself, while part of the group left to hunt red deer and boar,
returning with raw materials. One
deer was definitely obtained during April, when someone was still hunting male
seals on Oronsay. Therefore, the
entire group could not have left the island to hunt deer.
It can safely be concluded from this evidence that gray seals were
definitely used for food. It is
hard to come to firm conclusions about the relative proportion of the diet
represented by these seal remains. It
is impossible to determine the role of unpreserved plants or other unpreserved
animals in the diet of Mesolithic peoples.
Analysis of human remains can help to fill in this gap.
Human bone collagen stable isotope analysis can determine the amount and
type of protein a person consumed the last ten years of his life.
Stable isotope analysis measures the amount of marine protein versus the
Further analyses of 15C ratios indicate the Oronsay humans were eating
shellfish, fish and marine mammals. A
high proportion of their diet was coming from high trophic level marine mammals
like seals. This would support the relatively high frequency of gray seal
remains at Cnoc Coig. This evidence
supports the possibility that Cnoc Coig represents a permanent base camp, with
specialized parties leaving to obtain and return with more terrestrial
resources. Therefore, the
subsistence patterns used on Oronsay most likely belong to the type used in
Similar tests done on remains from Vaenget Nord
indicate these people had a diet of about 75% marine protein, comparable to
modern day Inuit peoples (Price, Petersen 1987).
This indicates that people on Oronsay may have relied more heavily on
seal and other marine resources than even modern Inuit people.
Vaenget Nord is a small seasonal campsite and the people there would have
been living in conditions similar to those in the rest of Denmark.
of faunal and human remains in shell middens allows us to develop an idea of
what life was like for Mesolithic people on the coasts of Western Europe.
Establishment of the hunting seasons allows us to see that two distinct
subsistence patterns existed at the same time.
1993 People of
the Stone Age Harper Collins,
New York, NY
Mellars, Paul editor
on Oronsay Edinburgh University
Price, Douglas and Petersen, Erik Brinch
1987 A Mesolithic camp in Denmark Scientific
Richards, M.P. and P.A. Mellars
1998 Stable isotopes and seasonality of the
Oronsay middens Antiquity
Stein, Julie K.
a shell midden Academic press, San Diego CA