Red deer may have completed an epic sea voyage to Scotland’s outer islands some 5000 years ago. According to a recent study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the red deer that currently inhabits the Scottish islands may have caught a boat ride not from the Scottish mainland but from as far away as central Europe.
The BBC reports that researchers compared deer DNA samples from archaeological sites off Scotland like Orkney and the Outer Hebrides to DNA from mainland deer. They found that not only are the DNA samples from island deer distinct from those of mainland deer, but are also distinct from those in Ireland and Norway. Researchers believe the findings imply that the red deer on Scotland’s outer islands were brought from a much greater distance.
“Unexpectedly, our data showed that outer island ancient Scottish red deer were unlikely to have originated from mainland Scotland,” the authors write in the study. “... It has previously been suggested that the outer Scottish Isles are located too far from mainland Scotland for them to have been colonized naturally by red deer. Our results support this hypothesis, but also indicate that Neolithic humans introduced red deer into the outer Scottish Isles from an unknown origin of a greater distance than previously suggested.”
The BBC notes that red deer weren’t the only animals to be transported to Scotland’s islands via boat. Researchers believe Orkney voles—a variation of the common vole found exclusively off the northern coast of Scotland—arrived in Orkney on Belgian boats a little more than 5000 years ago. Add the red deer to that equation, and you’ve got a sea voyage like Noah’s Ark … albeit populated by a very specific set of mammals.
These findings are fascinating not only for insights into the origins of Scotland’s red deer, but because they provide valuable information about the lives of Neolithic humans. If, in fact, humans transported the red deer from central Europe, they may have been significantly more adept seafarers than previously believed. "There's not a huge amount known about the seafaring capabilities of humans in northern Europe around that time—we just don't know,” researcher David Stanton told the BBC. "This potentially gives us a bit of a clue as to what they might have been capable of."