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Department of Archaeology

Staff

Publication details for Prof Peter Rowley-Conwy

Bishop, R R, Church, M J & Rowley-Conwy, P A (2015). Firewood, food and niche construction: the potential role of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in actively structuring Scotland's woodlands. Quaternary Science Reviews 108: 51-75.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

Over the past few decades the potential role of Mesolithic hunter–gatherers in actively constructing their own niches, through the management of wild plants, has frequently been discussed. It is probable that Mesolithic hunter–gatherers systematically exploited specific woodland resources for food and fuel and influenced the ‘natural’ abundance or distribution of particular species within Mesolithic environments. Though there has been considerable discussion of the pollen evidence for potential small-scale human-woodland manipulation in Mesolithic Scotland, the archaeobotanical evidence for anthropogenic firewood and food selection has not been discussed in this context. This paper assesses the evidence for the active role of Mesolithic hunter–gatherer communities in systematically exploiting and managing woodlands for food and fuel in Scotland. While taphonomic factors may have impacted on the frequency of specific species in archaeobotanical assemblages, it is suggested that hunter–gatherers in Mesolithic Scotland were systematically using woodland plants, and in particular hazel and oak, for food and fuel. It is argued that the pollen evidence for woodland management is equivocal, but hints at the role of hunter–gatherers in shaping the structure of their environments, through the maintenance or creation of woodland clearings for settlement or as part of vegetation management strategies. It is proposed that Mesolithic hunter–gatherers may have actively contributed to niche construction and that the systematic use of hazel and oak as a fuel may reflect the deliberate pruning of hazel trees to increase nut-yields and the inadvertent – or perhaps deliberate – coppicing of hazel and oak during greenwood collection.