The people of the Neolithic era performed arduous tasks of erecting huge boulders such as the Stonehenge. Great strength and food fuel is required to accomplish such titanic tasks. We can name a few of the notable monuments built during that period but have you ever wondered what might have people fed?
With archaeological expertise and lipid analysis, we can determine what food they consumed. Digging deep into the historical sites using various tools, experts have found fragments of pots and animal bones from their ‘feasts.’ The oils and fats on those vessels accumulated at the pores and lipid analysis showed astonishing results.
Evidence includes the meat of pig and dairy products according to the lack of assemblages. Hence, based on extensive study of the Neolithic sites and even human poo, I have compiled a list of the top 10 foods from the farming and foraging Neolithic period.
While the Neolithic period is known for the advent of domestication of plants (and animals), foraging was an important part of their livelihood. It is not mere conjecture but is substantiated by evidence from the discovery of charred nutshells and fruit seeds in and around Neolithic sites.
Hazelnuts are highly nutritious, and their ubiquity is what made them a staple in the Neolithic household. Archaeological evidence from Durrington Walls uncovered hazelnut shells burnt in hearths. Besides England, scientists have lignified their pericarps from European sites and found them abundantly in North America for preparing pre-Columbian cuisines.
While in Asia, as many as 13 Neolithic sites in China show hazelnut shells, especially abundant in the large Neolithic village of Banpo. Moreover, pollen analysis states the prolific vegetation of hazelnut trees. New records show charred Siberian hazelnuts (Corylus heterophylla) at the Beiniu site in Shaanxi of China.
Hazelnuts are seasonal and only grow in the autumn. However, it served as multi-purposeful for Neolithic people as the nuts nourished them and their shells lent warmth in the winter as they burned them in hearths. Not only that, they could store these nuts over time for the winters. To say that fragments of hazelnut shells were found in a whopping 92% of the sites dating from 4000BC-3400BC is factually correct.
Since the genetic evidence suggested that adults in the Neolithic era were lactose intolerant, the presence of dairy fats in smaller pots at the Durrington Walls excavations surprised scientists. These porous pots bore in them many lipid profiles, which resulted in no milk fat traces but processed dairy upon analysis. Thus, they resolved that milk was acidified and curdled into cheese and yogurt.
Similarly, milk protein was also found in the dental calculus of prehistoric people, which led to the belief that the earliest use of milk was during the Neolithic era.
They also assert that Neolithic people also consumed cheese on special occasions or during ceremonies as milk is associated with fertility, breast milk, and early childhood- that connote the religious significance of the era. The knowledge of transforming milk into edible cheese or the transformation itself could have bolstered its symbolic significance.
The undisputed evidence of Neolithic cheese-making came from Kuyavia, Poland, where traces of dairy fat were found in a 7000-year-old unglazed ceramic strainer. Moreover, shards of the pot with tiny perforations emerged in the early European Neolithic sites in the sixth millennium BC. They are interpreted as cheese strainers.
The evidence for early milk use in Europe, North Africa, Denmark, and the British Isles is the organic residue preserved in pottery. It is based on the delta c thirteen value of major fatty acid present in milk.
The specialized vessels, similar to modern-day cheese strainers, were abundantly rich in milk fat. Thus, it is compelling evidence for being used to process lactose-containing milk into lactose-reduced, edible yogurt and cheese.
Besides being a better digestible commodity, it also transformed milk into a non-perishable and transportable product. Hence, the significance and, consequently, cheese consumption was wide among the Neolithic farming communities.
Neolithic Revolution is noted for introducing the world to plant cultivation and wildlife domestication. The era saw a transition from hunting and gathering to plantation and harvesting.
At such a time, the prehistoric farmers grew a variety of cereals, emmer wheat, bulgur wheat, barley, etc., in the Fertile Crescent (modern-day Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Israel).
New evidence suggests that people cooked grains and plants in pots as early as 10, 00 years ago. According to scientists, this ‘kind of porridge’ was cooked at difficult times when they were out of meat.
The most common evidence of cereal or porridge is the burnt amorphous particles found in Neolithic archeological sites. For instance, more than 200 food samples were taken from the excavation site at the Neolithic Catalhoyuk in Turkey. Under a low-powered microscope, scientists found the presence of plat tissues in those fragmented samples.
Many pots and cooking vessels also emerged during the excavation, suggesting boiling mixed grains in them. In addition, people boiled the grain and ground it to coarse flour, and used it for a prolonged period. That way, the inhabitants conveniently consume grains by adding hot water or milk, or even yogurt.
When scientists studied the Bulgarian wheat at Kapitan Dimitrievo and 4000-year-old barley and wheat from northern Greece, they discovered starch modifications as a grain penetrated by boiling water. Bulgur wheat flour and porridge were a staple in the Mediterranean.
Humans have been relying on honey as early as 9,000 years ago, claims a study based on 20 years of research and thousands of pottery shards. The relationship between humans and honeybees indeed started right from the Neolithic Period about 8,000 years ago.
In a study involving about 6400 pots from the Neolithic settlements of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, scientists detected the distinctive chemical fingerprint of beeswax in them. It suggests that they were utilizing the wax as well as honey from the honeybees.
Since honey is made up of sugar which could not survive for thousands of years at these sites, scientists did not find it directly. Hence, the only beeswax was collected from chemical compounds present in cooking pots from around 150 Old World sites.
They used honey as a sweetener in their daily meals, which is proven by studying the dental calculus or dental plaque. Scientists investigated a buried set of teeth and found that they had decayed early. The decay is often associated with the consumption of starchy food and sweeteners.
Apart from consuming honey, the Neolithic farmers might have used the wax for various purposes, such as waterproofing the porous pots, making glue for cosmetic and even medicinal purposes.
If you have been following Terence McKenna, you might know his Stoned Ape theory and the hypothesis that human evolution was accelerated by a catalyst known as the psilocybin mushroom. While it was initially dismissed as a story, much later, anthropologists have found mushroom spores in the dental observation of a Stone Age woman in corroboration to Mckenna’s claims.
Psilocybin or not, traces of mushroom consumption has predated the Neolithic Age. The woman’s dental extraction and analysis showed that she had been eating sponge capped, boletes, and gilled mushrooms. The result is that inhabitants of the then era widely consumed mushrooms.
There is no direct evidence of mushroom consumption during the Neolithic period. However, the mushroom-like pictographs engraved on the walls of Villar del Humo in Cuenca, Spain (approximately 8000-35000 years ago) may suggest their use. Similarly, the enduring tradition of pottery in the culture of the Yangshao in central China during the Neolithic age also shaped their pots as mushrooms. Their pots had a mushroom-shaped mouth with an enlarged diameter for the body.
5. Wild Fruits
There is evidence of Neolithic people consuming sloe (blackthorn), blackberries, and damsons in the excavations of the Durrington Walls in Britain. The pip of sloes in the stomach of a Stone Age man verifies that people in this era commonly consumed wild fruits such as the blackthorn.
An archaeobotanical study in 24 Neolithic sites of the Iberian Peninsula has yielded remarkable data. Researchers found the seeds of acorns, wild grapes, and mastic fruits the most when evaluating hearths, housing areas, and roasting pits.
Charred remains of hazelnuts and acorns in the mountainous regions could suggest a roasting tradition at higher altitudes. Although there is no direct evidence found, these seeds frequently dotting the mountainous paths suggest that acorns were roasted s regional tradition.
Similarly, a blackthorn seed has been found in the environmental samples of the Durrington Walls. Moreover, researchers have found an organic sample indicating some berry ‘patty.’ Thus, berries, sloes, and damsons were some fruits that the Neolithic farmers collected during the autumn and loved to munch on them.
Since plant-based food consumption is sparse, there is only evidence of two crab-apple seeds from environmental sampling at Durrington Wall. While we know that foraging and farming were two modus operandi of the prehistoric farmers for their daily bread, we do not have much proof to ascertain apples were their staple diet.
When an environmental sampling was done at the site of Durrington Walls, the charred plant materials contained a lot of hazelnut shells, sloe fruits but very few crab apples. However, twin pips of crab apple are a testimony to their wild plant consuming a diet of our ancestors.
It is said that apples having a very little amount of sugar couldn’t yield a fermented alcoholic drink. Hence, they were munched on as whole fruits and not used for fermentation.
3. Leafy Vegetables
In ancient times, the vegetables were quirky and unpalatable. For instance, the apples were modern-day peas, and tomatoes were as small as berries. Similarly, the kernels of corn were teeth-crunching and tiny. Cucumbers were like sea-urchins, and lettuce was prickly.
Peas were starchy and had to be burned under fire and peeled before consuming. Cabbages, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and cauliflower were not more than sea kales that grew as leafy weeds in and around coastal areas. Carrots were probably purple, and beans were equally unfit to eat.
It was before the civilized tail end of the Stone Age or the Neolithic period took over. That was when vegetables got off from the grounds and into bite-sized, palatable foods.
The early Neolithic farmers spread across the world, carefully selected and cultivated wild fruits and vegetables to yield more nutrition and flavor. They were the first genetic engineers of foods and grew green, lush, juicy vegetables that still dominate our plates to this day.
Charred plant remains assembled from 26 sites of Yiluo valley in China for a survey, spanning the period from the sixth millennium to 13000 BC, yielded great results. Foxtail millet, broomcorn millet, and rice were the common grains introduced in 3000 BC.
2. Beef Stew
Most sources state that soup-making was not a common phenomenon until 9,000 to 5,000 years ago. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America states that boiling was only possible after the advent of heat-proof and waterproof vessels about 5,000 years ago.
Many counter statements have arrived later, contradicting the arrival of the soup-making technique. However, a common denominator is that all researchers agree it was a very old tradition, predating even the Neolithic era.
Similarly, another aspect of the Neolithic revolution is animal domestication and using them as food. A project focusing on the excavation of the Durrington Walls in England proved that Neolithic people had been feasting on cattle and pigs, even boiling them to make stews.
It unearthed an incredible number of prehistoric bones in the whole of Europe: more than 38,000 animal bones and shards of pottery. When researchers launched a second project to infer the wealth of information, they found that the animal remnants suggested they had been burned in the fire.
Among the overwhelming number of bones, about 8% of them belonged to beef. The chunks of meat were very well preserved and sustained cut marks on them.
Some evidence suggested that beef was cut up in pieces and cooked in grooved ware pottery as a stew. Meat boiling is proven by the fact that 51% of porous pots, upon investigation, retained beef fats.
With cutting-edge technology, scientists were able to figure out the bones found at the site of the Durrington Walls. The information they received reads that 90% of the animal remains belonged to pigs.
A well-preserved humerus of pig revealed burns at the ends of the lower limbs. It is suggestive of the fact that they were burnt and roasted before eating. Some of the remains of pigs also show signs of tooth decay, implying that sweetened or starchy foods deliberately fattened them.
The successful project then launched a second one where they also examined the shards of pots. These porous pots had some fats and lipids accumulated on their pores.
Scientists found that 28% of the pots had pork fats in them. This statistic shows that Neolithic people were not only consuming pork as a slice of daily meat, but they were organizing feasts, probably for a ceremony or ritual.
Examining their bones and teeth suggests that they were brought in from hundreds of miles away through byways or even through boats.
The neolithic era brought about a revolution in the feeding and living habits of its predecessors. It is fascinating to learn that they were the genetic engineers who sculpted various fruits and vegetables and vessels to cook them.
It may have been thousands of years since their extinction, yet, we are familiar with their meals and consumed them even today. All in all, we know that breakfast 10,000 years ago was no different than what it is now.