Archaeological site of burnt vole caracases

Jule_Berlin/iStockphoto

Rodents may have been on the menu in ancient Scotland

Ancient villagers on the U.K. archipelago of Orkney likely dined on food items we’d consider luxuries today: venison, oysters, crab, mussels, cod, and … voles? A group of researchers says it’s possible that these resourceful Neolithic people did not turn up their noses when roasted rodent was on the menu. Their finding—based on pits full of singed vole carcasses in the ancient village of Skara Brae (above) unearthed in the late 1970s—would make this the first evidence for rodent-eating in Neolithic Europe, scientists report this week in Royal Society Open Science. To build their case, archaeologists examined four trenches at the 5400-year-old village, full of thousands of vole and wood mouse skeletal fragments. Scientists quickly ruled out natural causes of death, because voles are known to steer clear of human settlements and because the trenches lacked any signs of burrowing. A trench within the village compound also contained more adult skeletons than any of the other pits, suggesting that villagers were selectively hunting larger animals, and treating them like protein-rich snacks, according to one of the researchers. Burn patterns on the bodies closely resemble those caused by roasting on a spit over embers, rather than incineration after decomposition, the scientists say. This became especially evident after comparing them with rodent remains from similar sites in Patagonia and South Africa, where the animals were commonly on prehistoric plates. The scientists admit that there could be other explanations for the rodent bones—the grain-farming villagers could have simply seen them as meddlesome vermin that needed to be culled—but the burn marks don’t quite fit those theories. So the researchers are sticking to their favorite hypothesis: that these skeletons are the remains of some of Europe’s first rodent barbeque dinners.