Prehistory: Food & Health

For a long time after humans started to settle permanently in post-Ice Age Britain, about 14,000 years ago, food continued to be hunted, scavenged or gathered from the wild. Farming, which was not introduced until about 4000 BC, led to a gradual change in diet.

A reconstruction drawing of a family cooking in the Neolithic period

A reconstruction drawing of a family cooking in the Neolithic period
© Historic England (drawing by Peter Urmston)

HUNTING AND FARMING

The earliest food known to have been eaten in Britain was wild horse. Evidence dating from about 500,000 BC at Boxgrove in Sussex shows that it was killed with a sharpened wooden spear and butchered with flint tools, with the bones being crushed for marrow. Whether the flesh was cooked is uncertain.

Perhaps because wild food was relatively plentiful, the Neolithic ‘farming revolution’ did not reach Britain until about 4000 BC. Among the first food crops were pulses – including beans, peas and lentils – and barley and wheat (spelt and emmer varieties), which were ground into coarse meal in querns.

But evidence from chambered tombs suggests that cattle, sheep, goats and their dairy products were a much more important element of the early Neolithic diet, constituting up to 75% of it on some sites. Pigs were the favourite food at the gargantuan feasts for which evidence exists at Neolithic sites such as Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Arrowhead embedded in a pig bone

The tip of a flint arrowhead (circled) was found still embedded in this pig bone from the Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge. The use of an arrow suggests that pigs were hunted, rather than reared domestically.
© Courtesy of Salisbury Museum

NEOLITHIC HEALTH

The Neolithic people who met there were no taller than their hunter-gatherer forebears, averaging 5 feet 5 inches (1.65 metres) for men and 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 metres) for women. So it seems that the farming diet – albeit still augmented by seasonal gathering of wild food – may at first have brought little improvement in nutrition.

These people may even have become less healthy, and more subject to infectious diseases spread by close proximity to farm animals, decaying refuse and other humans. But skeletal remains provide firm evidence only of joint diseases, arthritis and dental problems like caries and abscesses (although generally Neolithic teeth were healthy).

Remarkably, the earliest evidence of surgery shows that ‘trepanation’ – the removal of bone from the skull – was practised, and that some patients recovered from it.

Beaker burial

This male skeleton, excavated near Shrewton, Wiltshire, was found buried with a Beaker pot and a copper dagger. Both men and women were often buried with Beaker pots and other possessions, although the precise purpose of the Beaker remains unknown.
© English Heritage (courtesy of Salisbury Museum)

BEAKER POTTERY

Communal drinking would surely have enlivened feasts. It has been suggested that the large, decorated ‘Beaker’ pots that characterise British burial goods between about 2400 and 2000 BC owed their popularity – from Norway to north Africa – partly to their alcoholic contents. One found in Scotland retained traces of fermented lime-tree honey mead, flavoured with meadowsweet.

Early Bronze Age Beaker users were a few inches taller than Neolithic people, averaging 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 metres) for women and 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 metres) for men. This, however, is based on an elite sample of those important enough to be buried in round barrows.

Life expectancy is hard to determine, but few (even of this elite) probably lived much past 50 – and some had also endured considerable discomfort. The Amesbury Archer, buried near Stonehenge with no fewer than five Beakers in about 2400 BC, was disabled for most of the 35–45 years of his life by a knee injury.

Finely decorated Beaker pot

Beaker pottery was made in Europe from about 2800 BC. Finds of hundreds of Beaker pots in prehistoric burials across England suggest that they had a ceremonial purpose, as well as being used for drinking. The elaborate decoration on this one is still clearly visible.
© Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

COOKING

It was probably such elites that benefited most from advances in cooking in the later Bronze Age. Fire-pits and ceramic cooking pots (initially rounded, then flat-bottomed) began to be replaced with big bronze cauldrons, from which the meat was speared using bronze flesh-hooks. Salt, generally extracted from seawater, was now increasingly used as a flavouring and preservative.

For most, however, basic cereals remained the staple everyday diet. Multi-grained gruel or bread was the last meal preserved in the mummified stomach of Lindow Man, ritually killed and deposited in a Cheshire bog in about 300 BC.

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