In 2016, a single canine tooth was found at Blick Mead – a major Mesolithic site 2km from Stonehenge (see CA 271, 293, 324, and 325). Now further isotopic analyses have revealed a complicated picture of the dog’s diet and possible migration patterns.
With no human remains recovered from the site, this canine tooth – indirectly dated to c.4989-4808 BC – has proven a fortuitous find. As dogs live in close proximity to people and are frequently fed their leftovers (or scrounge from their middens), they can act as a proxy for human behaviour patterns. So while we cannot assess the human diet and migration patterns at Blick Mead directly, this canine tooth can suggest what they may have been like.
The dietary analysis was fairly straightforward. Using carbon and nitrogen isotopes, Bryony Rogers and a team from Durham University were able to reconstruct what types of food the dog most likely ate between two and six months of age, when the tooth in question was formed. The results showed that it was unlikely to have consumed any marine-based proteins, and instead its diet predominantly consisted of meat from landbased herbivores, with the possible inclusion of omnivores and freshwater fish. This would be consistent with the types of animal remains recovered from both Blick Mead and other British Mesolithic sites, where the most frequently recovered bones come from aurochs, red deer, wild boar, and river fish.
The team’s assessment of migration patterns was a bit more complicated. Initial isotopic results of the tooth had focused on oxygen isotopes (see CA 321). These results yielded a lower oxygen-isotope level than would be expected for the area, suggesting that the dog was unlikely to be local and had possibly come from more northern and/or eastern climes. Another possible interpretation for these low oxygen-isotope levels was that the dog was local, but that the regional climate at the time was colder than modern-day temperatures.
These interpretations can only be speculative, though, as there are currently no other oxygen-isotope data for British dogs from any time period. This means that the results are hard to read with precision, instead having to be compared to human and pig oxygen-isotope values. It might be that we cannot use these equations to calibrate dog isotope values, and in order for them to be fully interpreted a calibration equation for dogs must be created.
The narrative is further complicated by the strontium isotope results. These results were consistent with the dog being local, indicating that it probably came from a chalky landscape. Cretaceous chalk bedrock is not isolated to this region, however, extending across Wiltshire and East Anglia and up into the Yorkshire Wolds, meaning an exact location cannot be pinpointed.
So what do these conflicting reports suggest? Taken together, the strontium- and oxygen-isotope results are consistent with two possibilities: either the dog was raised locally when the temperature of the region was much cooler than it is now, or the dog was brought to the site from a location in eastern Britain (or perhaps from as far away as north-eastern Ireland).
The paper outlining these results was recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, found at www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X18301871.
This news article appears in issue 354 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.