Early Scottish farmers didn’t need manure

(ORDO NEWS) — The farmers of the European Neolithic everywhere fertilized their fields with the waste products of livestock.

But it turned out that some of them did not approve of such a “fragrant” way of farming – or simply did not need it.

In the late 1970s, archaeologists found the remains of a burned-out wooden house in the east of Scotland.

Now this place is known as Balbridey – one of the early Neolithic settlements, dating from the first half of the 4th millennium BC.

Samples of well-preserved pottery and rather large stocks of grain were found in and around the house. Already today, scientists have studied these grains by analyzing stable isotopes of nitrogen and carbon.

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Balbridee on the map

The analysis of stable carbon isotopes is primarily important for dating – and no surprises were found here, the primary dates are fully confirmed.

But the level of stable nitrogen isotopes should show what soil the cereals were grown on. Here the scientists were in for a surprise.

The grain found at Balbridee had very low levels of nitrogen. Mostly in the bins and ditches around the burnt house, they found grains of two-grain wheat ( Triticum dicoccon ) and a little less naked barley ( Hordeum vulgare L. ). In wheat, the level of nitrogen was lower.

The authors of the work believe that this indicates an agricultural practice that is not similar to traditional European methods of growing cereals.

The point is this: all the finds of Neolithic granaries on the continent and most of the British Isles indicated that the farmers of that time actively fertilized the fields with manure. It should also increase the level of nitrogen available to plants.

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The plan of the archaeological site shows the distribution of stable isotopes in different grains

It is well known that Neolithic people, when doing agriculture, either combined farming and cattle breeding, or, if these were different communities, they coexisted.

Archaeological finds, analyzes of food remains on ceramics unequivocally state : there was no division into vegans and meat-eaters in the Neolithic.

It is logical that the waste products of livestock were applied to the ground as fertilizers. But why didn’t the cultivators at Balbridee do it?

It could be assumed that the first Scottish farmers constantly changed the places where they grew cereals. In this case, manure may not be applied, relying on the fact that it already exists in the recent “virgin lands”.

But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise: the harvest was collected annually from the same fields. Actually, this depleted the soil in terms of nitrogen.

The scientists also analyzed finds of grain from later (about 3300-2400 BC) Neolithic settlements near Balbridee and on one of the Orkney Islands.

They found that at the Neolithic Dubton Farm, near Balbridee, farmers generously fertilized the soil with manure. And on Orkney too – with the only exception: one field was not covered with manure.

Let’s note an important point. So far, no traces of pastoralism (bones of domesticated animals) have been found at the Balbridey site, but this is a normal situation for the east of Scotland: there are rather acidic soils in which the bones are poorly preserved.

Nevertheless, the authors of the work believe that we are not talking about Neolithic vegans.

They suggest that cattle were grazed at great distances from the fields and the pasture was year-round – that is, there was simply nowhere for manure to accumulate. The damp climate of the East of Scotland was quite suitable for this type of pastoralism.

The researchers note that the absence of fertilizer does not appear to have affected crops, at least for some time.

That is, ancient farmers were able to develop a sustainable strategy for farming even with a nitrogen deficiency in the soil.

How exactly they did this is not entirely clear. Perhaps the insufficient yield per unit area was compensated by the expansion of fields.

Also, the analysis of stable isotopes helped to separate the grains by the years in which they were collected.

Judging by the fact that cereals harvested in different years were in the same places at the same time, Neolithic farmers took measures to protect themselves from crop failure by creating large stocks

In other words, agriculture in Scotland was quite stable and well adapted to the changing climatic conditions of the 4th and 3rd millennia BC.

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