Lipid residues from prehistoric sherds reveal transition around 2500 BC
It has long been debated whether Neolithic farming economies were ever established at the limits of modern agriculture around the 60th parallel north. Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, sustainable farming economies were established slightly to the south, in Britain, southern Norway and Sweden. In Finland, however, agriculture is problematic even today due to lower temperatures and a snow cover for several months of the year.
Corded Ware was a pan-European phenomenon during the third millennium BC. Corded Ware reached Finland, but despite the firm association of this culture with pastoral farming elsewhere in Europe, there is no evidence for it in Finland. A problem for archaeologists is the poor survival rate of archaeological remains in the acidic soils of the region.
Fortunately, these same conditions favour the preservation of certain classes of ancient biomolecules such as lipids in the walls of ancient ceramic cooking vessels. Carbon isotope analysis can then be used to determine the origins of such organic residues.
In a new study published in Proceedings of the Royal Seciety B, researchers took advantage if the availability of abundant sherds representing prehistoric cooking vessels to investigate the economy of prehistoric hunter–fisher–foragers using so-called Comb Ware, and possible early farmers associated with Corded Ware, Final Neolithic Kiukainen Ware, and Early Metal Age people.
Seventy prehistoric sherds were investigated, from sites in southern and southwestern Finland; 19 yielded residues amenable to analysis. Residues recovered from Comb Ware dating from 3900 to 3300 BC were found to be associated exclusively with marine products suggesting specialised subsistence strategies and/or the storage of marine commodities for exchange. By contrast, residues recovered from Corded Ware dating to around 2500 BC display isotopic signatures suggesting fats of ruminants. While these could indicate either domestic cattle or wild elk or reindeer, around half the residues are from milk, suggesting the former possibility. Notably, these milk residues were found in drinking beakers rather than storage amphorae. Only one Corded Ware vessel was found to contain residues of a marine origin despite the proximity of the sites investigated to the coast.
Unlike the other two, Final Neolithic Kiukainen Ware sherds revealed a mixed-economy of marine and ruminant products. Possibly marine elements were reintroduced to the economy as a hedge against deteriorating climate. The Early Metal Age residues were exclusively of dairy origin, suggesting the intensification of agriculture despite the continued deterioration of the climate.
The sharp contrast between the marine products associated with Comb Wares and domesticated products associated with Corded Wares supports the view that Corded Ware pottery represents the successful introduction of farming into Finland and also places the origins of farming and milk consumption at this northerly latitude at 4,500 years ago.
- Cramp, L. et al., Neolithic dairy farming at the extreme of agriculture in northern Europe. Proceedings of the Royal Seciety B 281 (2014).