Uncovering Neolithic Culinary Traditions
Researchers from the University of Bristol have revealed fascinating new information about the cooking habits of Neolithic Britons
The journal Nature Communications1 published a report about the nutrition of Neolithic Britons which included cereals, including wheat, that were cooked in pots. The team behind this study was able to determine that cereals were cooked in pots and mixed with dairy products and occasionally meat to make early versions of gruel and stew through chemical analysis of ancient, incredibly well-preserved pottery found in the waters surrounding small artificial islands called crannogs in Scotland. They also found that the visitors to these crannogs cooked their meat-based meals in larger pots and their milk-based cereals in smaller pots.
Around 4000 BCE, migratory farmers from continental Europe are said to have introduced cereal farming to Britain. This is demonstrated by the occasional recovery of preserved cereal grains and other detritus from Neolithic sites, which is frequently intermittent and scarce. At this time, pottery was also introduced to Britain, and molecular lipid fingerprints taken from the fabric of these pots show strong evidence for domesticated items like milk products. With the exception of millet, it has not yet been possible to identify accompanying cereals' molecular remnants in these lipid signatures, despite the fact that they later developed into a significant staple that now rules the world's subsistence economy.
It has been shown through previous research on Roman pottery from Hadrian's Wall that certain lipid markers for cereals can persist when absorbed in pottery that has been preserved in wet conditions and can be found using a high-sensitivity method. However, it is important to note that this pottery is only 2,000 years old and comes from an area where cereals were known to have been present. According to recent research, cereal biomarkers can be kept under ideal circumstances for thousands of years longer. The fact that many of the pots tested were in good condition and ornamented, which could indicate they may have served some sort of ceremonial function, was another fascinating aspect of this research.
The research offers fresh insights into potential uses for these constructions because the purpose of the crannogs itself are still not entirely known (many are far too small for permanent habitation). The investigation revealed that a large percentage of the pots contained cereal biomarkers, which is the earliest biomolecular proof of cereals in absorbed pottery remnants in this area.
Despite the fact that the scant evidence from charred plant remains in this area of Atlantic Scotland mostly points to barley, the findings suggest that wheat was being cooked in pots. This might be due to the under-representation of wheat in charred plant remains due to its versatility in cooking styles (e.g., boiling as a component of stews), which makes it less frequently charred, or to more unique cooking methods.
An examination of the connections between these islets and other Neolithic occupation sites in the Hebridean region and elsewhere, as well as a more thorough comparative study of the use of various vessel forms through surviving lipid residues, are the next steps in the research at the University of Bristol. These inquiries are a part of a current PhD studentship funded by the South-West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Hammann, S., Bishop, R.R., Copper, M. et al. Neolithic culinary traditions revealed by cereal, milk and meat lipids in pottery from Scottish crannogs. Nat Commun 13, 5045 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-32286-0