Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific breakthroughs and more.
The breakfast habits of ancient Scots may not have been so different from ours, new research has found.
Scotland’s lochs are credited with preserving this snapshot of the diet and culinary habits of humans thousands of years ago, revealing they enjoyed porridge similar to hot cereal, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.
The discovery was made using DNA fragments from Neolithic ceramics that were submerged in the lake’s water. Mixed with the remains of ancient wheat and milk, which ultimately provided the first direct evidence of porridge-like foods on the human menu, it was virtually absent from the prehistoric record. Archaeologists now have a clear idea of the cooking practices of a 6,000-year-old community, and can offer insights for today.
“It’s important to learn about people’s past food-purchasing practices and culinary traditions to help us understand who we are today,” Lara González Carretero, a professor of bioarchaeology at the University of York in the United Kingdom, said via email.
Food choices can reveal a lot about a community’s socioeconomic pressures, relationships with other cultures and migration, and ritual behavior, added Carretero, who was not involved in the research. “Understanding all these aspects of past societies would allow us to shed light on the socio-cultural changes and patterns experienced by populations in a given area and how these have shaped those populations today,” he said.
These learnings can also inform alternatives to modern food systems, potentially making them more sustainable through the application of knowledge and food production techniques gleaned from the past, Carretero said.
Excavations at four different sites on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides have uncovered dozens of Neolithic pottery pieces, almost like houses on stilts, buried underwater among ancient man-made islands known as crannogs. Using highly sensitive biomolecular techniques and what scientists call organic residue analysis of the vessel deposits, the team of UK researchers behind the study were able to identify what the artefacts contained and reconstruct past foodways.
Unglazed pottery absorbed small traces of animal, wheat, milk fat and oil cooked inside. The debris was locked in place because of the conservation qualities of the freshwater environment it was part of for so long, according to the researchers.
“Fats and oils are very resistant to cleaning,” said study author Lucy Cramp, associate professor of archeology at the University of Bristol in the UK. “Imagine cooking bacon in a pan, and if you leave it in cold water for weeks without cleaning, it will still be very greasy.”
It is this microscopic “fat” that preserves Scottish recipes dating back to 4000 BC.
This early Scottish community may have been full of picky diners, who were very deliberate about which pots were used for particular foods, the study found.
The researchers rarely identified the type of remains of domestic grasses such as cereals, wheat and barley in the same pots as traces of animal meat.
The research team also found a direct correlation between the size of a pot’s rim and its designated content. Containers less than 10 inches in diameter were used almost exclusively for dairy products. Those larger than about 12 inches supported meat, occasionally dairy products and plants appeared.
“Once you get that combination, even if it’s just wheat and milk, you’re understanding how they built their food world and their diet,” said study author Duncan Garrow, a professor of archeology at the University. Reading in the UK. “It brings you a little closer to them.”