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The breakfast habits of ancient Scots may not have been too different from ours, new research has found.
It’s Scottish lakes that get the credit for preserving this culinary snapshot of the diets and habits of humans living thousands of years ago, revealing that they enjoyed hot-cereal-like porridge, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The finding comes via preserved bits of food DNA in Neolithic-era pottery that was submerged in the lake water. Commingled ancient wheat and dairy residues, which ultimately provided the first direct evidence of porridge-like foods on humans’ menu, had been virtually absent from the prehistoric record. Now, archaeologists have a clear idea of the culinary practices of a 6,000-year-old community, which can offer key insights about the present.
“It is important to learn about people’s past food procurement practices and culinary traditions to help us understand who we are today,” said Lara González Carretero, a lecturer in bioarchaeology at the University of York in the United Kingdom, via email.
Food choices can reveal a lot about a community’s socioeconomic pressures, contact with other cultures and migration, as well as ritual behavior, added Carretero, who was not involved with the study. “Understanding all these aspects of past societies would allow us to shed light on the socio-cultural changes and patterns that populations in a particular area went through and how these have shaped who these populations are today,” she 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 along the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland revealed dozens of pieces of Neolithic pottery stored underwater among ancient human-made islands known as crannogs, which look almost like houses on stilts. Using highly sensitive biomolecular techniques and what scientists call an organic residue analysis on the deposits in the pots, the UK-based team of researchers behind the study were able to identify what the artifacts once contained and reconstruct foodways of the past.
The unglazed pottery had absorbed small traces of animal, wheat, dairy fats and oils that had been cooked inside of them. The residues were locked in place due to the preservative qualities of the freshwater environment they were part of for so long, according to the researchers.
“The fats and oils are very resilient to being washed away,” said study coauthor Lucy Cramp, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol in the UK. “Imagine cooking bacon in a frying pan, and if you just left that in cold water with no detergent for weeks, it’s still going to be really greasy.”
This microscopic “grease” is what holds the Scottish recipes of 4000 BC.
No mixing and matching
This early Scottish community might have been full of picky diners, as they were very intentional about which pots were used for certain foods, the study found.
Researchers rarely identified cereals, the type of residue from domesticated grasses like 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 contents. Vessels less than 10 inches in diameter were used almost exclusively for dairy products. Those larger than about 12 inches held meat, with the occasional coappearance of dairy and plants.
“Once you have that combination, even if it’s only wheat and milk, you’re getting a little bit of a sense of how they constructed their food world and their diet,” said study coauthor Duncan Garrow, professor of archaeology at the University of Reading in the UK. “It just brings you a little bit closer to them.”