From surf to turf: Archaeologists and chemists trace ancient British diets

The change by our ancestors from hunter-gathers to farmers is one of the most intensively researched aspects of archaeology. Now a large-scale investigation of British archaeological sites dating from around 4,600 BC to 1,400 AD has examined millions of fragments of bone and analysed over 1,000 cooking pots.The team, led by Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, developed new techniques in an effort to identify fish oils in the pots. Remarkably, they showed that more than 99 per cent of the earliest farmer’s cooking pots lacked sea food residues.Other clues to ancient diets lie within human bones themselves, explored by the Cardiff group led by Dr Jacqui Mulville. The sea passes on a unique chemical signature to the skeletons of those eating seafood; while the early fisher folk possessed this signature it was lacking in the later farmers.Lead author of the study, Dr Lucy Cramp said: “The absence of lipid residues of marine foods in hundreds of cooking pots is really significant. It certainly stacks up with the skeletal isotope evidence to provide a clear picture that seafood was of little importance in the diets of the Neolithic farmers of the region.”Returning to the pots, the Bristol team used a compound-specific carbon isotope technique they have developed to identify the actual fats preserved in the cooking pots, showing that dairy products dominated the menu right across Britain and Ireland as soon as cattle and sheep arrived.The ability to milk animals was a revolution in food production as, for the first time humans did not have to kill animals to obtain food. As every farmer knows, milking stock requires a high level of skill and knowledge.In view of this, team member, Alison Sheridan from the National Museum of Scotland concludes that: “The use of cattle for dairy products from the earliest Neolithic confirms the view that farming was introduced by experienced immigrants.”Viewed together the findings show that Early British hunters feasted on venison and wild boar and ate large quantities of sea food, including seals and shellfish. With the introduction of domestic animals some 6,000 years ago they quickly gave up wild foods and fishing was largely abandoned, and people adopted a new diet based around dairying.Dr Cramp continued: “Amazingly, it was another 4,000 years before sea food remains appeared in pots again, during the Iron Age, and it was only with the arrival of the Vikings that fish became a significant part of our diet.”Dr Mulville said: “Whilst we like to think of ourselves as a nation of fish eaters, with fish and chips as our national dish, it seems that early British farmers preferred beef, mutton and milk.”Why people changed so abruptly from a seafood to farming diet remains a mystery. Professor Evershed said: “Since such a clear transition is not seen in the Baltic region, perhaps the hazardous North Atlantic waters were simply too difficult to fish effectively until new technologies arrived, making dairying the only sustainable option.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Bristol. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Read more

Genetic study pushes back timeline for first significant human population expansion

Sep. 24, 2013 — About 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic age ushered in one of the most dramatic periods of human cultural and technological transition, where independently, different world populations developed the domestication of plants and animals. The hunter-gatherers gave rise to herders and farmers. Changes to a more sedentary lifestyle and larger settlements are widely thought to have contributed to a worldwide human population explosion, from an estimated 4-6 million people to 60-70 million by 4,000 B.C.Share This:Now, researchers Aiméa, et al., have challenged this assumption using a large set of populations from diverse geographical regions (20 different genomic regions and mitochondrial DNA of individuals from 66 African and Eurasian populations), and compared their genetic results with archaeological findings. The dispersal and expansion of Neolithic culture from the Middle East has recently been associated with the distribution of human genetic markers.They conclude that the first significant expansion of human populations appears to be much older than the emergence of farming and herding, dating back to the Paleolithic (60,000-80,000 years ago) rather than Neolithic age. Therefore, hunter-gatherer populations were able to thrive with cultural and social advances that allowed for the expansion. The authors also speculate that this Paleolithic human population expansion may be linked to the emergence of newer, more advanced hunting technologies or a rapid environmental change to dryer climates.Finally, they also suggest that strong Paleolithic expansions may have favored the emergence of sedentary farming in some populations during the Neolithic. Indeed, the authors also demonstrate that the populations who adopted a sedentary farming lifestyle during the Neolithic had previously experienced the strongest Paleolithic expansions. Conversely, contemporary nomadic herder populations in Eurasia experienced moderate Paleolithic expansions, and no expansions were detected for nomadic hunter-gatherers in Africa. “Human populations could have started to increase in Paleolithic times, and strong Paleolithic expansions in some populations may have ultimately favored their shift toward agriculture during the Neolithic,” said Aiméa.Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google:Other social bookmarking and sharing tools:|Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by Molecular Biology and Evolution (Oxford University Press), via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS. …

Read more

Spread of farming and origin of lactase persistence in Neolithic Age

Aug. 28, 2013 — Scientists have brought to light the spread of dairy farming in Europe and the development of milk tolerance in adult humans. It was after the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to that of a settled farming culture in the Neolithic period that dairy-related animal husbandry first evolved, and this practice spread from the Middle East to all of Europe.The processing of milk to make cheese and yogurt contributed significantly to the development of dairy farming, as this represented a way of reducing the lactose content of fresh milk to tolerable levels, making a valuable foodstuff available to the human population. Until 8,000 years ago, humans were only able to digest lactose, a form of sugar present in fresh milk, during childhood because as adults they lost the ability to produce endogenous lactase, the enzyme required to break down lactose. Shortly before the first farmers settled in Europe, a genetic mutation occurred in humans that resulted in the ability to produce lactase throughout their lives. Increasing numbers of adults in Central and Northern Europe have since been able to drink and digest milk.”This two-step milk revolution may have been a prime factor in allowing bands of farmers and herders from the south to sweep through Europe and displace the hunter-gatherer cultures that had lived there for millennia,” specifies the article in Nature with reference to the LeCHE project. Since 2009, this EU initial training network involving 12 postgraduate students and their mentors from different disciplines, i.e., anthropology, archeology, chemistry, and genetics, has been looking at the role played by milk, cheese, and yogurt in the early colonization of Europe and has published numerous important articles on the subject.Anthropologist Professor Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) was substantially involved in the establishment of the EU project and its research activities. “To appreciate the significance of our findings, it is important to realize that a major proportion of present-day central and northern Europeans descend from just a small group of Neolithic farmers who happened to be able to digest fresh milk, even after weaning,” explained Burger. His team investigated the phenomenon of lactase persistence, i.e., the ability to break down milk sugar, using skeletons from the Neolithic. “Among the most exciting results obtained by the LeCHE group were the detection of milk fat residues in numerous Neolithic pottery remains and the ability to model the spread of positive selection of lactase persistence,” said Burger.Just 5,000 years ago, lactase persistence was almost non-existent among populations in which its modern prevalence is greater than 60 percent. …

Read more

Hunter-gatherers’ taste for spice revealed

Aug. 22, 2013 — Our early ancestors had a taste for spicy food, new research led by the University of York has revealed.Archaeologists at York, working with colleagues in Denmark, Germany and Spain, have found evidence of the use of spices in cuisine at the transition to agriculture. The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years.The silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along with animal and fish residues were discovered through microfossil analysis of carbonised food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany. The pottery dated from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.Previously scientists have analysed starches which survive well in carbonised and non-carbonised residues to test for the use of spices in prehistoric cooking. But the new research, which is reported in PLOS ONE, suggests that the recovery of phytoliths — silicate deposits from plants — offers the additional possibility to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, not detectable using starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.Lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research centre at at the University of York, said: “The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants, and the reasons for their cultivation, were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavour. As garlic mustard has a strong flavour but little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues, our findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine.”Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods in this region than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste.”The research also involved scientists at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Institución Milá i Fontanals, Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona, Spain; the Danish Agency for Culture, Copenhagen, Denmark; the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany. And Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, Schloβ Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany.The research was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Read more

Utilizzando il sito, accetti l'utilizzo dei cookie da parte nostra. maggiori informazioni

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.

Close