Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans: The agency factor in the process of Neolithisation – a Dutch case study1

6 Subsistence

Does the subsistence system show any site-specific aspects that cannot be attributed to differences in ecological conditions and/or chronology, and may hence be assumed to represent deliberate choices of the local group? That’s a question we can ask because we have such detailed information on the diversity of the landscape and the subsistence strategies thanks to the wetland conditions of all the sites. From botanical and zoological analyses we know that the subsistence system was highly differentiated at all sites and can be characterised as an ‘extended broad spectrum economy’(Louwe Kooijmans 1993), by which we mean a combination ofthe ‘new’ (Neolithic) elements of crop cultivation and stock keeping and the ‘old’ (Mesolithic) exploitation of a broad range of natural resources. This way of life may be regarded as the ‘habitat’ of society in an economic sense. If we assume a conventional site catchment area, with a radius of action of 5-10 km, all the ecological zones – the coast and the freshwater swamps, the estuary and the major rivers – will have been accessible to everyone. The only uncertainty is the extent to which the occupants of Ypenburg had access to estuarine resources. It would seem that the closing of the tidal inlet in this area was well under way by 3700 BC. That would have made the Meuse estuary the most important, and Wateringen and Schipluiden will then have been more favourably situated than Ypenburg. Apart from this there do not seem to be any palaeoecological reasons to assume any substantial differences.

It is impossible to present an accurate description of the composition of the entire subsistence system, let alone to compare the systems of different sites. This is due to the diverse, incomparable sources on which our understanding of crop cultivation, fishing, hunting and stock keeping is based. The different elements of the subsistence system will therefore be discussed separately below. Differences in the employed methods (especially collection methods) and analyses make it even more difficult to arrive at a detailed, quantitative comparison of the archaeozoological basic evidence. They will be discountedfor better or worse.

6.1 Hunting and stock keeping

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As our understanding of both hunting and stock keeping is based on large bones that are collected by hand, we are able to assess the ratios of these two elements of the subsistence system – contrary to those of other elements. Nevertheless there are quite a few problems concerning these two elements, too.

For a uniform understanding of hunting and stock keeping a number of uniform choices must be made concerning certain aspects. The most important is the distinction between wild boar and pig, which can be made in only a few percent of all identifications. Most bones that cannot be identified to species level (pig/wild boar) are proportionally divided between pig and wild boar, and in this process a substantial error margin is unfortunately introduced – certainly in cases of small numbers of bones. But there is no alternative. This procedure was followed for Wateringen and Rijswijk supplementary to the publications (Zeiler 2006b).

Secondly, for more reliable results it is best to leave (red deer) antler out of consideration, to avoid a bias towards red deer in assessing remains. Because antler is still readily identifiable even among highly fragmented remains, this problem affects sieved fractions in particular. This aspect was not considered in the publication of Wateringen 4 either (Paalman 1996; id. in Raemaekers et al. 1997).[3]

Thirdly, remains of dogs should be left out of consideration, too, because dogs were not consumed and moreover regularly became buried as (parts of) cadavers (see below). And finally, remains of small furbearing animals (martens, polecats, wild cats, foxes, etc.) should be ignored because those animals will not have been shot primarily for consumption and will moreover have provided only very little meat. Being represented in only small quantities, such remains are incidentally usually fairly insignificant.

All this means that we may well use the ratio of large wild animals and livestock, or the ratio of the main meat suppliers (red deer and cattle) as ‘Neolithisation indices’, at least as far as meat supplies are concerned. All other animals will have contributed towards the diversity of the diet, but are of quantitatively minor importance.


Fig. 10 Composition of the mammal remains from Ypenburg, Wateringen, Schipluiden and Rijswijk-Hoekpolder. After De Vries 2004 and De Vries in Koot et al. 2008; Paalman in Raemaekers et al. 1997 and Zeiler 2006b; Zeiler 2006a; Laarman 2004 and Zeiler 2006b, respectively. Represented are the numbers of identifications to species level, excluding small rodents, excluding dogs and excluding (red deer) antler, of the remains collected by hand.

With due allowance for the above considerations, eight faunal assemblages of the Hazendonk sites in Delfland have been compared (fig. 10). Apart from Ypenburg phase 11/K, all the assemblages were large enough for such comparison. The comparison revealed close similarities, except at one site (Rijswijk). Cattle accounted for 40-60% of the total numbers ofbones, sheep/goat were largely or completely absent from all the assemblages, and pig, wild boar and red deer were well represented at all the sites. Only the assemblage from Ypenburg contained a substantial proportion of remains of marine mammals, in particular porpoise, bottle-nose dolphin and grey seal. The Ypenburg assemblage also differed in the complete absence of remains of beaver – an animal that accounted for some 40% of all the bones of furbearing animals at the other sites (fig. 11). Such differences are traditionally attributed to differences in local ecological conditions, but in this case there is little evidence to support such an assumption, as already explained above. We believe the differences instead reflect different preferences for supplementary hunting - at Ypenburg along the coast and at Schipluiden and Wateringen in the swamps. These differences in specialised, supplementary hunting however pale before the most remarkable faunal spectrum of Rijswijk-Hoekpolder, site 1 (Laarman 2004), which is completely agricultural. Hunting was of no importance whatsoever at this site, which was evidently inhabited by a small local community living less than a kilometre from Schipluiden, which had made its own, deliberate choice in favour of a completely agricultural way of life, at least as far as stock keeping is concerned.


Fig. 11 Ratios of the remains of furbearing animals and marine mammals. Assemblages that were too small are hatched. See the caption of fig. 9 for the sources.


Fig. 12 Ratios of the remains of domestic animals and large wild animals (top) and those of cattle and red deer (bottom) as measures of the ratios of the amounts of meat produced via stock keeping and hunting, respectively. Hatched: Vlaardingen culture. See the caption of fig. 9 for the sources.

So how do the choices that were made in Delfland relate to those made elsewhere around the same time? To answer this question we will compare the two ‘Neolithisation indices’ with those of two contemporary assemblages from the Dutch river area (fig. 12). The assemblage of Oosterhout-’t Klumke (near Nijmegen), which is unfortunately rather small (N=59), shows only a modest hunting component (Zeiler inBall & Van den Broeke 2007). It forms a marked contrast with that of the Hazendonk site, with its extremely low percentage of bones of domestic animals and very high beaver scores. The ratios at Oosterhout show that we are to envisage a society entirely dependent on farming there, but also on the adjacent sandy soils, around 3600 BC. This makes Hazendonk (Zeiler 1997) even more incongruous than it already appeared in a previous comparison (Louwe Kooijmans 1993), when most of the data used here were not yet available. In combination with the site’s position on a small sand outcrop in the swamp, the faunal spectrum would even more clearly than before seem to represent a special activity site focusing on the hunting of beavers and otters. The alternative is a local community with an entirely different way of life based largely on trapping and fishing. We find it rather unlikely that there was such a great diversity in ways of life within such a relatively small area (Hazendonk lies 40 km from Delfland and 75 km from Oosterhout) and within a single cultural tradition, especially when we consider that this pattern continued into the last occupation phase at Hazendonk, around 2700 BC, a time in which such a way of life would have been even more incongruous.

The Neolithisation indices can also be compared with assemblages from the subsequent period, from two Vlaardingen sites on slightly younger dunes in the same coastal area: Voorschoten and Leidschendam (Groenman-van Waateringe et al. 1968). The modest diachronic differences can be understood within the context of a continuing Neolithisation process.

We must realise that we are comparing numbers of bones of animals of varying dimensions and meat supplies. This is however not important in comparing individual sites with one another. Fish and birds are for this reason – and because of substantial differences in preservation – however a different story.

6.2 Fowling

On the basis of the number of identifications it would seem that fowling was far more important in Delfland than at other Meso- and Neolithic sites in the delta. Comparison of the weights of the bones of birds and mammals (a better way of assessing the animals’ roles in meat supply) however shows that large mammals were dominant in absolute terms (see the tables in Zeiler 2006a). It is nevertheless interesting to consider what choices were made.


Fig. 13 Ratios of the numbers of remains of birds in four sufficiently large assemblages. See the caption fig. 9 for the sources.

We have only remains collected by hand to assess the importance of fowling. At all three sites duck hunting was evidently a prominent activity (fig. 13). It focused on wild ducks and teal. The range of birds hunted at Ypenburg was however far more diverse than that at the other sites, including more geese, swans, cormorants and white-tailed eagles, and a conspicuously high percentage of cranes. Cranes were evidently systematically hunted: quantities of crane bones were found associated with all the house sites. In the early phases (1-2a) of Schipluiden, too, the aforementioned species were hunted more than in later times, but still to a much lesser extent than at Ypenburg. Attributing these differences to local ecological conditions and then making statements based on these differences in hunted species would be oversimplifying things. In the first place, many of the differences are not very environmentally specific and, secondly, we would find ourselves caught up in circular reasoning. Such explanations are plausible only if unrelated data sets (for example mammals, birds and fish) show parallel trends, and if those trends are in accordance with palaeogeographic evidence obtained in a different manner. For the time being we attribute the differences – in particular the high crane scores at Ypenburg - to local preferences.

6.3 Fishing

It is far more difficult to compare information on fishing due to differences in the collection of the remains concerned. The differences relate to both the mesh width of the employed sieves and the sampling strategy. Sturgeon is a case apart on account of its many readily identifiable but vulnerable dermal plates. At sites with fairly poor preservation conditions such large quantities of sturgeon fragments result in high scores. Concentrations of fish remains may represent a single deposition and a very limited range of species, showing that fishing focused specifically on certain species. That is interesting and understandable in itself, but it does mean that we may not add up samples representing different species. Only randomly collected remains provide a picture of fishing that is to some extent representative (see Brinkhuizen 2006).


Fig. 14 Ratios of the fish remains from Ypenburg, Wateringen (both collected by hand) and Schipluiden (4-mm sieve).

In this respect there are major differences between the three sites: in all three cases remains were collected by hand, at Ypenburg the soil was also sieved through a 2-mm mesh, at Schipluiden through 4-, 2- and 1-mm meshes, and at Wateringen only one concentration from a pit fill was sieved through a 2-mm mesh. This does however not adequately explain the differences in the sites’ archaeological fish spectra (fig. 14). Flatfish (flounder), eel and Cyprinidae (carp family) were caught at all the sites. Sturgeon and grey mullet were however definitely the most important, not only in numbers of remains, but – considering the fishes’ dimensions – also in economic terms, and precisely in the case of these two species we observe substantial differences: sturgeon was the dominant species at Schipluiden, grey mullet at Wateringen, and Ypenburg occupies an intermediate position in this respect. It is unfortunately difficult, if not impossible, to interpret the numbers of remains of sturgeon (which were up to 3.5 m long at Schipluiden) and grey mullet (up to 60 cm long) in terms of their relative economic importance. An average sturgeon may have yielded 100 times as much meat as a grey mullet, but also produced vast quantities of easily identifiable remains. In this case, too, the differences cannot be attributed to any subtle differences in the sites’ situation and their access to the different ecozones, nor to differences in age. They again reflect real choices made by people in the past.

6.4 Arable farming and gathering

No comparative research has been done in the field of the vegetable component of the diet, mainly for practical reasons such as lack of time and insufficient data. Carbonised remains of chaff and grains of naked barely and emmer were found at all the sites. This, combined with carbonised seeds of marsh plants (which are assumed to have been field weeds) and especially the occurrence of silica gloss on some flint knives showing that they were used as sickles, is at Schipluiden taken to be a strong argument in favour of local crop cultivation. It is plausible that crops were cultivated at Wateringen, too, though this site yielded less evidence to support such an assumption. Sickle gloss was also observed on a few tools at Ypenburg. The absence of ard marks may not be taken as a counterargument: the settlements predate the earliest ard marks so far found in the Netherlands (Louwe Kooijmans 2006b), it is far from clear precisely where the fields lay, so also whether any parts of fields may have been included in the excavated area, and the soil conditions were not favourable for the preservation of any ard marks.

Besides practising crop cultivation, the sites’ occupants also gathered produce in nature: onions, tubers, root vegetables, nuts, berries, fruits. Most prominent among the archaeological remains are the remains of sloes, which evidently grew in the dune shrubs all over the place.

6.5 Conclusion

The ranges of food remains described above show that all the local communities in principle engaged in more or less the same activities: exploitation of natural resources combined with stock keeping, except at Rijswijk-Hoekpolder, where natural resources seem to have been insignificant. Stock keeping was more important than hunting at all the sites, fowling focused almost entirely on waterfowl, in particular ducks, and different forms of fishing were practised. The ecology of the species shows that the hunting and fishing territory of all the sites included both the freshwater and the brackish zone, and both stagnant water and river (estuarine) water. This extended broad-spectrum economy is to be seen as the economic habitat of this society. There are however conspicuous differences between the individual sites concerning certain aspects of this economy. The occupants of Ypenburg hunted furbearing animals, but no beavers. There, marine mammals and various large birds (swans, geese, cranes) were far more important than at the other sites, though still generally of subordinate importance. The fishing strategies of the occupants of Schipluiden focused on sturgeon – they caught very few grey mullets - and they killed more beavers. The differences – especially those between Ypenburg and the other sites - may be partly attributable to differences in ecological conditions, though we have no concrete evidence to support such an assumption, but even then they imply distinct intraregional differentiation and different local practices.