Mesolithic hunter gatherers in Britain traded with farmers for wheat thousands of years before they adopted a Neolithic agriculture lifestyle themselves, researchers have discovered.

Researchers have found evidence of wheat at Bouldnor Cliff, an underwater archaeological site off the Isle of Wight, dating back 8,000 years – 2,000 years before modern humans started farming in England.

The find suggests these hunter gatherers forged relationships with their farming neighbours and maintained this relationship until they adopted agriculture for themselves.

Published in the journal Science, scientists reconstructed changes in the plant and animal species at the Bouldnor site before it was submerged.

They found sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) sequences that matched strains of wheat from the Near East – but no trace of cultivation.

Study author Robin Allaby, from the University of Warwick, told IBTimes UK that at this time, Mesolithic people lived near Neolithic people and that there was cultural interaction between the two – but exactly what that was is unknown: "Those two cultures maintain their integrity with that communication for well over 1,000 years."

At the time there were two agricultural cultures moving up through Europe – one following the Mediterranean coast line that had reached France, and the other that moved along the Rhine and Danube rivers, so coming from the east of Britain.

Speaking about the Bouldnor Cliff site, Allaby explained it was a boat building yard that was not lived at: "It wasn't lived at, it was a workshop. We have boat-building technology that appears to be about 2,000 years ahead of its time. We don't see it on mainland UK; the same ability to split large pieces of wood. So there were already indications that there was early technology at this particular site.

"The stone tools appear to be the same sort of shape you see in northern France rather than mainland UK. It's very much facing the continent. There was evidence of eating, hazelnut shells, a big part of the Mesolithic diet. They were building boats and eating their sandwiches."

bag of flour
Wheat found in Britain at Bouldnor Cliff underwater agricultural site. Roberta Strickler/Creative Commons

He said the wheat traces found could have been from a big bag of flour, or something similar.

The significance of the find provides greater information regarding the debate about this period of time. Some have suggested migrating farmers displaced the hunter gatherers rapidly, while others suggest it was a more gradual process.

The presence of wheat points to the latter, but raises further questions about how they lived. "On the one hand, there's why did it take so long? On the other, why did it happen at all?" Allaby said.

"They're quite different economies and certainly when the Neolithic arise, it's often associated with malnutrition because you're switching from a protein rich diet to a starch diet that we're not really adapted to deal with. So you get the arrival of lots of disease at that point and a crash in the stature of skeletons that don't recover until the industrial revolution.

"Why is a matter of speculation. One reason may simply be that you need less space to have a farm than you do to have a hunting range. It means the farmers could encroach bit by bit and the Mesolithic economy becomes less economic as your land seeps away. It may be that they weren't particularly keen to change but in the end they had to."

The team now plans to turn its attention to Doggerbank, an area under the North Sea that was formally a large land mass. "What's become very clear from this is this study is that if you want to understand the process of Neolithicisation in Europe, the answers are probably under the sea."