Monday, 16 May 2016

Nuts in Neolithic Ireland

Hazelnut shell fragments from Neolithic Ireland
I recently wrote about a new paper on farming and foraging in Neolithic Ireland. One of the defining characteristics of the Neolithic period in Ireland (4000-2500 BC) is the introduction of farming. Domesticated plants began to appear -- including wheat, barley and flax -- as well as domesticated animals.  But foraged foods continued to play an important role in Neolithic Ireland, as evidenced by the recovery of charred nutshell and fruit remains from many archaeological excavations. When people started farming, they did not simply abandon foraging. Rather they made use of a wide variety of foods, both cultivated and gathered.

Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) is the most common type of nut found at Neolithic archaeological sites in Ireland. Shell fragments of hazelnut were present at an amazing 92% of sites (35/38 sites) dating from 4000 BC to 3400 BC. Then we see a decrease -- hazelnut shell fragments are found at only 73% sites (8/11 sites) dating from 3400 BC to 2500 BC. Does this mean that nuts became less popular during the later Neolithic? Not necessarily. Plant remains of any type (cereals, nuts, fruits, weeds, etc.) were recovered from far fewer sites dating to the later Neolithic (11 site) when compared with the earlier Neolithic (38 sites). Furthermore, in our new paper, we suggest that the later sites may not have been as intensively sampled as earlier sites, which might explain this apparent decrease in the recovery of nut remains.

Why were hazelnuts so popular in Neolithic Ireland? Probably because they are a very useful foodstuff. The nuts are highly nutritious, being rich in monounsaturated fats. They can be eaten whole, or ground into flour or meal. Hazelnuts are relatively easy to process using simple tools; the nutshell can be cracked open using a sharp stone, or by placing the hazelnut on a hard surface or stone, and then striking the shell with another stone. Hazelnuts usually ripen during autumn and are therefore seasonal, but hazelnuts are also easily storable, and so can be kept for eating throughout the year.

Nowadays, we tend to eat dried hazelnuts, but the taste of fresh hazelnuts is a revelation if you haven't had them before. Keep an eye out for them as they grow and ripen over the coming months!