Neolithic humans prepared wild grains, leafy and aquatic plants in pottery vessels as early as 10,200 years ago, in a Sahara that was a green savannah, reports a paper published online this week in Nature Plants.
It is thought that pottery was independently invented twice during human history: first in East Asia around 16,000 years ago, and more recently in North Africa some 12,000 years ago. Although there is evidence that these pots were used to process animal products including milk, their role in plant cuisine has remained unknown.
Richard Evershed and colleagues studied a total of 110 potsherds (broken pieces of ceramic material) from archaeological sites at Takarkori and Uan Afuda in the Libyan Sahara. By analysing the carbon isotope ratios of oily deposits preserved in the pottery, they demonstrate that the pots were used to process a wide variety of vegetation gathered from the surrounding lakes and savannahs, including leafy plants, seeds, grains and aquatic plants.
The authors show that the pots predate plant domestication and agriculture in the region by at least 4,000 years. The authors conclude that the plant processing techniques posited by these findings may have been crucial in allowing the hunter-gatherers of the Early Holocene era to meet their dietary needs from the wild-growing grains and other plants present in the then green Sahara.