Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 3-1 (November 2011)Felix Weijdema; Otto Brinkkemper; Hans Peeters; Bas van Geel: Early Neolithic human impact on the vegetation in a wetland environment in the Noordoostpolder, central Netherlands

1 Introduction

The Flevoland polders -- the Noordoostpolder, Oostelijk (Eastern) Flevoland, and Zuidelijk (Southern) Flevoland -- in the central Netherlands contain a rich assemblage of archaeological remains. The region of the former river valleys of IJssel and Vecht in the Flevoland polders was inhabited by hunter-gatherers and early farming communities throughout the Final Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic (Peeters 2007). During the earlier part of the Holocene, Mesolithic people used an environment that changed profoundly as a result of climate change and subsequent relative sea-level rise. Dry dune tops were favourable dwelling places, but human use of the landscape was not restricted to high and dry places (Peeters 2007). For many years it was generally believed that hunter-gatherers had little or no measurable influence on the environment and the vegetation in particular (Waterbolk 1985). There is, however, mounting evidence for deliberate burning of vegetation zones (e.g. Bell 2007; Bos & Urz 2003; Bos et al. 2005), which may have had an impact on the (local) structure and composition of the vegetation (Zvelebil 1994), animal communities (Dods 1998, Dods2002) and hydrology.

Based on radiocarbon dates, Mesolithic hunter-gatherer activity in the former IJssel-Vecht valleys occurred in the Early and Middle Atlantic period (c. 7000-5000 cal BC). The evidence comes from river dune localities (compare Price 1981; Whallon & Price 1976; Groenewoudt et al. 2001; Bos et al., 2005) and therefore may not be representative for Mesolithic landscape use on a broader scale (Peeters 2007). From the Late Atlantic/Early Neolithic onwards, the area was inhabited by people of the Swifterbant Culture (c. 5000-3600 cal BC). In the 1970s a number of important sites were discovered on aeolian river dunes and natural levees in the palaeo-stream valleys of the Overijsselse Vecht and Gelderse IJssel (de Roever 1976; Price 1981; Van der Waals 1977; Whallon & Price 1976) (fig. 1). Available evidence suggests that the earlier Swifterbant people were hunter-gatherers who used pottery, while cattle herding only played a minor role (Peeters 2007; Raemaekers 1999).


Figure 1 Location of the sites mentioned in the text. (1) Schokkerhaven-E170, (2) Schokland-P14, (3) Urk-E4, (4) Swifterbant cluster of sites, (5) Hoge Vaart-A27.

Ever since the discovery and (partial) excavation of some of the sites, the Swifterbant Culture has played an important role in the debate on the spread of agriculture and the neolithization process in the Dutch Delta (de Roever 2004; Hogestijn 1990; Raemaekers 1999). In particular the discovery of charred cereal grains (Hordeum vulgare, Triticum dicoccon) at Swifterbant-S3 triggered the discussion on the (im)possibilities of cereal cultivation in tidal wetland environments in the early Neolithic (Van Zeist & Palfenier-Vegter 1981). Subsequent discovery of charred cereal grains at other localities, such as Schokkerhaven-P14 (Gehasse 1995) and Urk-E4 (Peters & Peeters 2001) made it clear that the finds at Swifterbant-S3 were not anomalous. Several radiocarbon dates indicated an age between c. 4300-4100 cal BC. Large scale excavations at the Swifterbant Culture locality of Hoge Vaart-A27 with dates ranging between c. 4900 and 4300 cal BC did not, however, record any indications for cereal cultivation (Brinkkemper et al. 1999).

Renewed investigations at the natural levee sites near Swifterbant provided important new insights into the ‘problem’ of cereal cultivation in wetland environments. Charred cereal grains have been found in several localities (Cappers & Raemaekers 2008). But more importantly, direct evidence for local cultivation was discovered at the site of Swifterbant-S4 in the form of a field with clearly recognizable hoe marks. Multi-disciplinary analysis of micromorphological thin-sections, diatoms and phytoliths underpin the interpretation of these features as the product of anthropogenic reworking of the soil and the presence of cereals (Huisman et al. 2009). Based on present evidence, it seems that the scale of cereal cultivation (combined with husbandry) would have been rather restricted and it is more appropriate to speak of horitculture, rather than agriculture (cf. Cappers & Raemaekers 2008).

The study on the geographical occurrence, timing, nature, and environmental setting of cereal cultivation remains important to deepen insights into Swifterbant subsistence strategies and to develop further models on the roles played by early cultivation activities cultural change. We contribute to this with the present study, based on palaeoecological data reflecting human interference at site Schokkerhaven-E170. The site is one of the few known places where the Swifterbant Culture occupation is succeeded by the Funnel Beaker Culture. As yet, very little is known about this period.