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Experts funded by Britain's Arts and Humanities Research Council have found the remains of Britain's earliest rabbit – a discovery which reveals bunnies arrived in the country 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, the council announced Thursday.|
Rabbits are native to Spain and France. It had been thought they were a medieval introduction to Britain, but this new discovery has pushed that timing back by more than a millennium.
Radiocarbon dating of the bone, which was unearthed at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex, shows the rabbit was alive in the 1st Century AD.
The 100px segment of a tibia bone was found during excavations in 1964, but it remained in a box, not recognized until 2017, when Dr. Fay Worley, a zooarchaeologist at Historic England realized the bone was from a rabbit, and genetic analyses have proved Fay was right.
Britain's earliest rabbit doesn't bear any butchery marks, and another analysis suggests it was kept in confinement. The inhabitants at Fishbourne Palace were known to be wealthy and kept a varied menagerie so that the rabbit could have been an exotic pet.
Academics from the University of Exeter, Universities of Oxford and Leicester, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, carried out the analyses, together with Historic England and Sussex Archaeological Society. Further research is ongoing that will reveal where the rabbit came from and whether it is related to modern bunnies.
Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, who is leading the work, said: "This is a tremendously exciting discovery and this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week. The bone fragment was very little meaning it was overlooked for decades, and modern research techniques mean we can learn about its date and genetic background as well.
Worley said: "I was excited to find a rabbit bone from a Roman deposit, and thrilled when the radiocarbon date confirmed that it isn't from a modern rabbit that had burrowed in. This find will change how we interpret Roman remains and highlights that new information awaits discovery in museum collections!"
Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, yet very little is known about when it first appeared in Britain. Although there is an abundance of popular belief and folklore, we also know next to nothing about the origins of Easter customs, such as the gifting of eggs purportedly delivered by the Easter "bunny."
The English word Easter was first documented in the eighth century AD by the Venerable Bede, whose treatise On the Reckoning of Time refers to spring celebrations in honor of the pagan goddess Eostre, from whom Easter takes its English and German name. The first historical mention of an "Easter Bunny" is, in fact, an Easter hare, and is found in a German text from 1682.