They are among the first people in the land that would one day Scotland become to cultivate the soil and grow crops to support them and their community.
But unlike their counterparts in the British Isles, a small group of Neolithic farmers seemed to have an aversion to getting their hands dirty, or at least dirtier than normal for a farm worker.
New research on a nearly 6,000-year-old farm in Balbirdie in Aberdeenshire revealed that its workers did not use manure to increase their crops, and instead relied on the land itself to provide its bounty.
This is despite the practice of using dung to fertilize fields was well known at the time, with a similar site in nearby Angus showing evidence of well-fertilized fields, while other Neolithic farms on Orkney – at the sites of Skara Brae and Braes of Ha ‘Breck dated between 3300 and 2400 BC – also had chemical traces of ancient smelly substances used to help grow food.
The reasons for the ancient farmers’ aversion to manure are lost in time, but archaeologists probing the mystery say it hasn’t stopped them from reaping a good harvest.
“Stable isotope analysis revealed very low nitrogen levels which show the crops were not grown on fertilized soils,” said lead author Dr. Bishop, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, adding “the large size and the number of grains recovered suggest that during this first phase of cultivation, the soils were productive without the need for fertilization”.
The discovery was the result of an analysis of the finds found at the site during excavations between 1977 and 1981.
This well-preserved Neolithic site was home to some of the earliest Scottish farmers around 3800 BC and features the remains of a wooden hall.
A site map
A large amount of ancient grain has also been recovered, which a team of researchers has now studied. The growing conditions of a plant affect the relationships between its carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which archaeologists can analyze, revealing in this case whether much has been widespread in the fields.
However, Balbirdie’s manure-free farm appears to be almost unique. Previous studies of early farms in England, as well as in continental Europe, usually found evidence that crops were grown in fertilized fields.
Questions about dung aside, the researchers say their findings suggest farming in ancient Scotland was a much more stable occupation than previously thought.
Modern agriculture makes extensive use of manure
Initial theories suggested that Neolithic farmers were a transitional batch, rarely working small plots before moving on, possibly living semi-nomadic.
However, the team’s research, published in Antiquity magazine, found that farms like Balbirdie’s were well-established parts of the landscape.
Dr Bishop said, “Evidence showed they grew their crops in permanent fields.”
It is also likely that these settled farmers shared their produce with others who worked the land, coordinating in common to ensure there was enough food for all.
Dr Bishop added: “At one of the Orkney sites we were also able to demonstrate that these early farmers grew their crops on a range of different soils, suggesting that they grew their crops quite extensively in the landscape or that different farms were storing their crops in a municipal shop at the site “