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Archaeology: Dishing up insights into Neolithic diets

Nature Communications

September 7, 2022

Pottery remains from the Scottish Outer Hebrides indicate that Neolithic communities in the region may have been consuming wheat between 3600–3300 BCE, a Nature Communications study suggests. The findings indicate that wheat may have been cooked with dairy products to produce a milk-based gruel or porridge.

The consumption of domesticated plants and animals first emerged in Britain and Ireland around 4000 BCE. Neolithic archaeobotanical remains from across Britain and Ireland suggest cereals were being consumed, but there may have been regional variations in their importance within different culinary traditions. Despite archaeobotanical evidence, finding traces of cereal processing in Neolithic pottery has been challenging.

Simon Hammann and colleagues analysed pottery recovered from four Neolithic crannogs (artificial/semi-artificial islands) in the Outer Hebrides. They selected 59 sherds (broken ceramic material) from a range of pottery for their analysis, including traditional Hebridean ridged and non-ridged baggy jars, as well as ‘Unstan’ type bowls (shallow bowls with grooved patterning) and shouldered bowls. Gas chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry were then used to analyse organic residues from these pottery remains. The authors detected molecular biomarkers for cereals, indicating wheat, and other foods that were cooked in the vessels. They suggest that this shows wheat may have been more present in Neolithic diets in this region than previously thought and may have been prepared with dairy products, perhaps as a type of milk-based gruel or porridge. Additionally, the authors indicate that there is a strong link between the size of the pottery and its use, with smaller-mouthed vessels associated with dairy products.

Based on their research, Hammann and co-authors propose that wheat may have played a larger role than previously thought in the diets of Hebridean Neolithic communities and the findings shed further light on the lives of early farming communities in the Outer Hebrides.

doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-32286-0

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