Last month, writing on the topic of blackberries for Lubera, I made the observation that the British don’t have a tradition of foraging. It made me wonder again when and why we lost it (which I started wondering when I was writing about Sea buckthorn on FB for Lubera). So far I haven’t found a definitive answer – ethnobotanists spend a lot of time exploring the reasons for loss of traditional/indigenous knowledge about plant use, but generally focus on societies where it is being lost now, and where there is hope of conserving it.
The Greeks are still famous for collecting wild greens, horta, particularly in spring. In France you can gather a basket of mushrooms and take them to the pharmacist to be checked for edibility. Wild berry picking remains a Scandinavian tradition.
My hypothesis is that, in Britain, the decline (and it’s not a total loss, even now) in wild food knowledge probably began with the enclosure movement that brought the land into private ownership, and continued through urbanization and industrialization. Perhaps, as a small country, we just lost too much land to agriculture and urbanization; we certainly have no ‘wilderness’ to speak of (although now that we’re polluting the seas and the air there are no habitats untouched by human influence anywhere in the world).
So I have started researching the use of wild foods in Britain through the ages, and I decided to start at the point where 100% of us were still hunter-gatherers. At the end of the last Ice Age, modern humans (Homo sapiens) colonized the British Isles as the ice retreated. They weren’t the first human inhabitants, but their arrival marked the start of the permanent human presence here, and they are our ancestors.
Britain was a very different place back then. Cooler and wetter, it was much like Scandinavia is now. Most of the land covered in forests, with humans making most use of coastal regions and open areas around lakes and rivers. There was still a land bridge to the rest of Europe, which meant new species could arrive without human intervention, although rising sea levels turned Britain into an island before the arrival of farming brought the Mesolithic era to a close.
There were fewer species of animals and plants here then, and some of them were quite different. Mesolithic hunters ate wild horse and elk and aurochs – the prehistoric version of cattle – as well as wild boar. We have to build up our understanding of this prehistoric period from archaeological evidence, and it’s limited. For a long time we thought that the Mesolithic diet was mainly meat-based, because bones and teeth survive much longer than plant remains. But better archaeological techniques and more extensive field work is putting together a better picture, and pollen studies allow us to understand more about which plant species were present. Although we can’t know for sure which of the edible species our Mesolithic ancestors were eating, we can be reasonably sure that they ate a wide range of plants, and had a plant-rich diet.
It’s worth noting that the ‘Paleo Diet’ concept doesn’t take into account that what hunter-gatherers ate was controlled by both their environment and their culture; different groups across the globe would have eaten very different diets. Some were mostly vegetarian, coastal groups made extensive use of marine resources, and the plants available in different climates varied greatly then, as it does now.
The original view of hunter-gatherers was that they led a very meagre existence, never far from famine and starvation. In the 1960s, a different view emerged and promoted hunter-gathering as the last true ‘affluent’ lifestyle – people then, it posited, weren’t weighed down by material concerns and only needed to ‘work’ a few hours a day to meet their limited needs, offering them plentiful leisure time. Both of these views are very much a product of the prevailing views of archaeologists of the time – in the 1960s industrialization and commercialization were causing nostalgia for the ‘good old, natural days’. The more modern view now is that the truth is somewhere in between. Hunter-gathering wasn’t an entirely idyllic lifestyle, but neither was it all primitive drudgery and hardship.
Our Mesolithic ancestors were thoroughly modern humans, exactly like us except with a much lower level of technology. (In fact, our jaws are different now, because of our softer diet, but other than that we’re pretty much identical.) They would have had sophisticated mental maps of their landscape, knowing when and where to find the resources they needed. They had an understanding of how to gather, process and store plant foods, almost certainly including processing to remove toxins and make foods more palatable. They understood the medicinal properties of plants and fungi. They could track, hunt and trap, skin and butcher a range of animals. They could build boats and catch fish with nets and spears and fish traps. They could cook, although their options were limited because pottery hadn’t arrived yet. They would have exploited a much wider range of foods than we do, including plants and the obvious animals, but also birds and birds eggs, amphibians, fungi and probably insects. Humans were even chewing gum by the Mesolithic. Groups were meeting and trading internationally and would have been able to exchange ideas, knowledge and skills. Modern humans coexisted with Neanderthals for thousands of years.
Consciously or not, our Mesolithic ancestors were also changing their environment. They were probably selecting seeds and plants, encouraging them to grow larger seed or sweeter fruits (etc.). It’s likely that they were spreading useful plants into new areas as they travelled around, and there’s evidence that fires were being used to clear areas and encourage the growth of hazelnuts, which were a staple food.
It’s fascinating to learn how different Britain was then, and which familiar plant species were already present. It’s going to be equally fascinating to ‘watch’ new species arrive as I travel forward in time. In the meantime, I have been writing up little snippets about our long association with raspberries, hazelnuts and juniper for Lubera. Although we have brought these plants into cultivation, it’s fun to grow them, knowing they have been a part of our diet for thousands of years!
Wild Food, by Ray Mears and world-renowned archaeobotanist Gordon Hillman, explores the plants our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have eaten, and the techniques they may have employed to do so. Ray and Gordon did lots of practical experiments and looked at existing hunter-gatherers to see what’s possible with stone-age technology. The book does include some plants that weren’t present during the Mesolithic, but which we can gather now and enjoy in a Mesolithic fashion. The book accompanies the TV series of the same name (and it looks as though you can watch the episodes on YouTube).
Prehistoric Cooking, by Jacqui Wood, details the kind of things people would have been eating, from the Mesolithic through the Neolithic (the period when people started to farm) and the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. It extrapolates from what we know from the archaeological record, and there are plenty of recipes to try if you fancy experimenting. Ryan and I like cooking outdoors, so hopefully we can move beyond the bbq to some more Mesolithic meals.
Star Carr is a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire, which has contributed greatly to our understanding of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The website has a lot of resources to explore.