Norm and difference : Stone Age dietary practice in the Baltic region

Abstract: Stone Age research on Northern Europe frequently makes gross generalizations about the Mesolithic and Neolithic, although we still lack much basic knowledge on how the people lived. The transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in Europe has been described as a radical shift from an economy dominated by marine resources to one solely dependent on farming. Both the occurrence and the geographical extent of such a drastic shift can be questioned, however. It is therefore important to start out at a more detailed level of evidence in order to present the overall picture, and to account for the variability even in such regional or chronological overviews. Fifteen Stone Age sites were included in this study, ranging chronologically from the Early Mesolithic to the Middle or Late Neolithic, c. 8300–2500 BC, and stretching geographically from the westernmost coast of Sweden to the easternmost part of Latvia within the confines of latitudes 55–59° N. The most prominent sites in terms of the number of human and faunal samples analysed are Zvejnieki, Västerbjers and Skateholm I–II. Human and faunal skeletal remains were subjected to stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to study diet and ecology at the sites. Stable isotope analyses of human remains provide quantitative information on the relative importance of various food sources, an important addition to the qualitative data supplied by certain artefacts and structures or by faunal or botanical remains. A vast number of new radiocarbon dates were also obtained.In conclusion, a rich diversity in Stone Age dietary practice in the Baltic Region was demonstrated. Evidence ranging from the Early Mesolithic to the Late Neolithic show that neither chronology nor location alone can account for this variety, but that there are inevitably cultural factors as well. Food habits are culturally governed, and therefore we cannot automatically assume that people at similar sites will have the same diet. Stable isotope studies are very important here, since they tell us what people actually consumed, not only what was available, or what one single meal contained. We should not be deceived in inferring diet from ritually deposited remains, since things that were mentally important were not always important in daily life. Thus, although a ritual and symbolic norm may emphasize certain food categories, these may in fact contribute very little to the diet. By the progress of analysis of intra-individual variation, new data on life history changes have been produced, revealing mobility patterns, breastfeeding behaviour and certain dietary transitions. The inclusion of faunal data has proved invaluable for understanding the stable isotope ecology of a site, and thereby improve the precision of the interpretations of human stable isotope data. The special case of dogs, though, demonstrates that these animals are not useful for inferring human diet, since, due to the number of roles they possess in human society, dogs could deviate significantly from humans in their diet, and in several cases have been proved to do so. When evaluating radiocarbon data derived from human and animal remains from the Pitted-Ware site of Västerbjers on Gotland, the importance of establishing the stable isotope ecology of the site before making deductions on reservoir effects was further demonstrated. The main aim of this thesis has been to demonstrate the variation and diversity in human practices, challenging the view of a “monolithic” Stone Age. By looking at individuals and not only at populations, the whole range of human behaviour has been accounted for, also revealing discrepancies between norm and practice, which are frequently visible both in the archaeological record and in present-day human behaviour.