The sheep they came to Europe since middle East during the Neolithic and just a few hundred years later they had already reached the most remote areas of the continent. They even reached Orkney Islands, an archipelago located north of Scotland. In Mainland, its main island, there is one of the oldest and best preserved Neolithic sites in the world.
The space is known as the Neolithic Heart of Orkney and it has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Among its monuments, the town of Skara Brae (located in the Bay of Skail and occupied from 3400 to 2500 BC), the great mortuary chamber of Maeshowe and the menhirs of the Stenness Rocks and the Ring of Brodgar.
The Neolithic Heart of Orkney It has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco
All Neolithic spaces are spread over a landscape without trees where moss is the most predominant. So what did all those imported sheep eat? As it turns out that around 5,500 years ago, which was more or less when these ruminant mammals arrived on the island, someone had the brilliant idea of providing them with a marine diet.
Algae, to be more exact, used as alternative fodder, as explained by the authors of a study published in the magazine Antiquity
. This practice is still maintained today, especially in North ronaldsay, the northernmost island of the archipelago, where sheep have been confined to the coast – with a dry dock 1.8 meters high – since 1832 to prevent grazing on cultivated land.
In North ronaldsay, the sheep were confined on the coast in 1832 to prevent grazing on cultivated land
The isolation alone does not explain, however, why the sheep began to eat algae. “What these animals reveal by varying their diet in the town of Skara Brae is the remarkable capacity of adaptation of Neolithic animal breeders, an activity that came to Europe from the Middle East at the beginning of the seventh millennium BC,” he explains to The vanguard
Marie Balasse, researcher of Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) of France.
“The Neolithic settlers had to face the diversity of the new environmental environments and, in response, produced local socio-economic, cultural and biological reconfigurations. In Orkney, sheep and shepherds turned to the sea, which, in addition to a zootechnical innovation, was probably also a mental revolution, ”adds Balasse.
Archaeologists have not found evidence of seaweed consumption in the Knap of Howar, a Neolithic farm located on the island of Papa Westray (or Papay). This was the place where, back in the fourth millennium BC, the sheep were introduced into the archipelago. Five hundred years later, however, during the first half of the third millennium, these mammals were already eating algae in Holm of Pope Westray, a small islet now uninhabited.
"Perhaps the physiology of the sheep had to adapt before they could eat algae, which would explain the 500-year delay," the researchers say. Balasse and his team have performed an analysis of isotope of sheep teeth found in Skara Brae that determined that there was a progressive introduction of seaweed into the Neolithic diet of these ruminant mammals.
There was a progressive introduction of seaweed into the neolithic diet of these ruminant mammals
The scientists re-analyzed the results of the residue analysis of Knap of Howar to conclude that the sheep could have eaten seaweed during the winter from the moment they arrived in the Orkney. "Contrary to popular opinion, the introduction of seaweed in the diet of Neolithic sheep was not the beginning of an unbroken tradition," they say.
During the Viking rule of the archipelago, which began at the end of the eighth century – after snatching the territory from the Picts – and extended to the eleventh century, the Nordic peoples perhaps imported their own cattle until the settlement of Earl’s Bu. And these animals had a terrestrial diet throughout the year.
The sheep could have eaten seaweed during the winter from the moment they arrived in Orkney
"None of the tests we have done on sheep that fed on seaweed in the Orkney from the Neolithic period to the Viking period shows a significant contribution of seaweed to the diet outside the winter period," experts say. Today, in addition to North Ronaldsay cattle, there are also sheep with marine diet in Shetland and the Faroe Islands.
"The practice may not have been continuous, but it is remarkable that sheep can still survive in such northern environments using the same strategies as their Neolithic ancestors," they conclude.
Today, in addition to North Ronaldsay, there are also sheep with marine diet in Shetland and the Faroe Islands