Information about ancient cultures continues to accumulate as technology advances. Research into paleolithic and neolithic cultures continues to fascinate archaeologists, sociologists, and paleontologists alike, and a recent study has shone new light onto a lesser-studied aspect of ancient human life.

A Study Into Food

Researchers out of the Collaborative Research Center at Kiel University in Germany have recently been investigating diets of neolithic peoples. In an archaeobotanical paleontological study, the first of its kind, scientists were able to isolate elements of the ancient diet through the study of burned food remnants on a ceramic vessel.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This study is the first of its kind. Remnants of food tend to be difficult to study, given the organic element of it. Most often, it’s consumed by animals or biodegrades long before scientists get the chance to study it, making this new study a boon to science.

The Study of Gastronomy

The study of gastronomy, or what people eat, is an old one. The question of what people have eaten and how they’ve cooked food is one that’s been deeply important to historians and sociologists for many years.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

You can tell a lot about a civilization from what people eat, and the standards of beauty across the years. For instance, in the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, standards of beauty saw heavier people as more affluent and able to eat themselves to gorging. Thin people were seen as poor and unable to provide, giving an interesting perspective on culture at the time.

Discovery of Ceramic Vessels

The study in question looks at an ancient civilization that resided in Eastern Holstein, modern-day Germany. In studying the area, they stumbled on ceramic vessels that, upon examination, were discovered to have food burnt onto them that had survived the years and years of time since.

Source: PLOS

This was a big discovery for the scientists. The village in question that they were investigating is believed to be one of the oldest settlements in the region, making the discovery of dietary evidence a significant leap for neolithic and paleolithic research.

More Hunter Than Gatherer

What the scientists discovered in the burned food remnants significantly changed the perception about these ancient civilizations. The common perspective for many years has been that these ancient cultures were often hunter-gatherer peoples, with an emphasis on hunter.

This is supported by the fossil evidence that has been discovered in the past. Ancient cultures are often attributed with the extinction of some species of megafauna, such as wooly mammoths, and they used every part of the animal when they were hunted. They ate the meat and used the bones, and the evidence of this practice had led to the perception of ancient peoples as hunters.

The Ancient Peoples Ate Plants, Too

The remnants of burned-on food on the ceramic contradicted this commonly held belief, though. Through an examination of the food remains, the scientists discovered that the diet of these ancient peoples much more heavily relied on plant-based foods and different types of cereals.

Source: PLOS

The scientists explained in their report that the burned food crusts contained the tissue remnants of emmer and barley grains, as well as seeds from the white goosefoot, which is a wild plant that grows as a weed and produces a lot of starchy seeds.

Not the First Discovery of Plants

This is not the first time that the remnants of these foods have been discovered in this settlement, though. Charred grains and chaff from emmer and barley have already been in analysis of soil samples in the past.

Source: PLOS

What the new findings reveal is that the cereals that have already been apparent in this settlement played a greater role in diet than previously believed. Wild plants played a significant part in the food spectrum of early farmers in this northern settlement, as the report explains.

Emmer and Barley

The burned remnants offered more information about how the food was prepared, too. The barley was harvested when it was milky ripe, and then prepared in a similar way to the green spelt – another grain important to early cultures – traditionally produced in other parts of Germany.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The emmer, on the other hand, was processed in a sprouted state. This would have given early foods based in emmer a sweeter flavor, which would have been important in lieu of any important spices.

Chemical and Physical Analysis

Chemical analyses of the pottery revealed the presence of dairy products, as well. That, combined with the crusts burned onto the ceramic, show that cereals and dairy were likely processed into a porridge-like food every day, helping to form a balanced diet for these early peoples.

Source: PLOS

The chemical signature is significant, though not as much so as the burned vegetable matter. Animal fats are absorbed and can leave remnants that can be detected through various methods for centuries and millennia, as we’ve seen, but the plant matter can only be seen through the physical evidence left in the burned remnants.

A Deeply Important Discovery

The discovery of the plant matter on ancient pottery showcases how important a multi-pronged approach is when discovering more information about these long-ago cultures. The new discovery shows that the diets of the ancient peoples may have been simple, but they were far from bland.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This information expands our contemporary understanding of how the introduction of agriculture changed ancient lifestyles. The change from pure hunters to a combination culture that relies on plants as much as meat took many decades and centuries, and each new piece of information is another piece of the puzzle to our modern enlightenment.