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Seafaring Neolithic and Red Deer in Scottish Islands

06 Apr 2016
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An article by Jonathan Webb, Science reporter, BBC News - 'Mystery voyage' of Scottish islands' red deer - reports that when red deer arrived on Scotland's outer islands some 5,000 years ago, they were probably brought across the ocean by humans from as far away as central Europe.

Researchers have compared ancient and modern deer DNA across the region. In particular, analysis of deer samples from archaeological sites in Orkney and the Outer Hebrides revealed surprisingly distinctive DNA sequences. The scientists now believe the animals are unlikely to have come from the mainland, nor Norway or Ireland, but instead seafaring Neolithic people trafficked the beasts from elsewhere.

Their findings are reported in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B:

Colonization of the Scottish islands via long-distance Neolithic transport of red deer (Cervus elaphus)
David W. G. Stanton, Jacqueline A. Mulville, Michael W. Bruford
Published 6 April 2016.DOI:10.1098/rspb.2016.0095

Red deer in Scotland

Red deer, the largest of modern British land animals, were banished from most of western Europe and restricted to southern Spain during the last Ice Age. When the ice retreated about 10,000 years ago, these and other beasts - including humans - gradually repopulated northern regions. But red deer didn't make it to these outer Scottish isles until about 5,000 years ago.

Humans, which were increasingly adopting domestication during this period, are thought to be responsible for the deer's arrival, but the new study casts doubt on the obvious idea that they shipped them from mainland Scotland. The ancient Orkney and Hebrides deer DNA in the new study is not a good match for any known population of red deer, including ancient specimens from mainland Scotland, Ireland and Norway.

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The researchers believe the most likely source is from an un-sampled population somewhere like mainland Europe. This would shed new light on the seafaring capabilities of humans in northern Europe around this time.

If central Europe was indeed the source, then the deer could have shared the trajectory of the Orkney vole, which arrived on the boats of Belgian farmers 5,100 years ago according to a 2013 study: Orkney vole came from Belgium with farmers 5,000 years ago.

Other explanations for genetic uniqueness of the ancient outer-island deer? One explanation is that there was an initial colonisation of the British Isles by the red deer, and then that initial genetic type later got replaced by another genetic type - a two-phase colonisation which has been found in several British species.

Research continues.

Images: Science Photo Library

Visit the British Isles Prehistory Archive:


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