Pigs foraging along a Scottish coastline have unwittingly uprooted the earliest evidence for a remote population of hunter-gatherers.
The uprooted items, stone tools that have been dated to around 12,000 years ago, are described in the latest issue of British Archaeology. The tools were discovered on the east coast of the Isle of Islay, Scotland, and include sharp points -- likely used for hunting big game -- scrapers and more.
Archaeologists Steven Mithen and Karen Wicks of the University of Reading explained to Discovery News that a gamekeeper had previously released the pigs at a local port on Islay to reduce the bracken there. While feasting away, the pigs managed to dig up the ancient tools.
"Previously, the earliest evidence (for humans at Islay) dated to 9,000 years ago, after the end of the Ice Age," Mithen said. "The new discovery puts people on Islay before the Ice Age had come to an end at 12,000 years ago."
Mithen and Wicks were already working on a project in Scotland when they were informed of the pigs' finds. They investigated the site, Rubha Port an t-Seilich, as well as nearby areas, and found layers of many other artifacts dating to different time periods. These included remains of animal bones, antlers, spatula-like objects, crystal quartz tools, and what was once a very well used fireplace.
Based on the age of the tools and their craftsmanship, the researchers suspect they belonged to the Ahrensburgian and Hamburgian cultures. These people originated in central Europe, with most coming from what is now northern Germany.
"They emerged primarily as reindeer hunters on the Ice Age tundras, most likely targeting migrating herds," Mithen explained.
He and Wicks said that Britain during the Late Glacial Period 12,000 years ago was joined to Europe by a landmass called "Doggerland." The landmass is now submerged beneath the North Sea.
Islay then, according to Mithen, "would have been largely a frozen tundra, with a mix of grasses and shrubs, with possibly some dwarf birch, much like the far north today."
Reindeer flourished there at the time, and were clearly a favorite of the hunters. Their tools suggest that they used every part of the animal, from the horns to the meat to the hide.
Basking sharks, seals, otters and other animals are also in the region, so the researchers believe the hunter-gatherers were tracking down some of these animals too -- especially meaty seals.
Despite the remoteness of the site, Mithen said it is even plausible that the area's natural resources sustained Neanderthals long beforehand.
"The nearest Neanderthal-like remains come from a cave in North Wales and date to 230,000 years ago," he said. "It is not inconceivable that they might have reached western Scotland, but the last ice sheets and glaciers are likely to have destroyed all evidence."
Traveling to the remote location would have been a challenge even for the hunter-gatherers who lived on Islay 12,000 years ago. Felix Reide of Aarhus University, who is an expert on Late Glacial Period tool making, believes that these people developed "a maritime adaption" that enabled them to explore northern regions, including Scandinavia and Scotland.
Their legacy likely lives on to this day.
"It is possible," Mithen said, "that some genes from the Ice Age hunters are still present in modern day Scottish populations."
As for the novelty of "pig archaeology," British Archaeology editor Mike Pitts told Discovery News that many years ago, he "came across a pair of very nice Neolithic flint axeheads that had been said to have been dug up by pigs."
"Pigs find things when they root about with their noses and front feet, digging for food," Pitts said. "It helps if there is someone there at the time to see the find!"