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Researchers uncover Neolithic culinary traditions

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Neolithic Britons cooked cereals, including wheat, in pots to make early types of gruel and stew, latest research has suggested.

Scientists made the invention by carrying out chemical evaluation of ancient and incredibly well-preserved pottery present in the waters surrounding small artificial islands called crannogs in Scotland.

The team, led by University of Bristol scientists, discovered cereals were cooked in pots and mixed with dairy products and sometimes meat, probably to create early types of gruel and stew.

Additionally they discovered the people visiting these crannogs used smaller pots to cook cereals with milk, and bigger pots for meat-based dishes.

A pot found on the bed of on the loch bed at Loch Bhorgastail on Lewis (Dan Pascoe/PA)

Crannog sites within the Outer Hebrides are currently the main focus of the four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Islands of Stone project.

Dr Lucy Cramp, of the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, said: “This research gives us a window into the culinary traditions of early farmers living on the north-western fringe of Europe, whose lifeways are little understood.

“It gives us the primary glimpse of the types of practices that were related to these enigmatic islet locations.”

Researchers said their approach has now revealed evidence for cereals in Neolithic pottery from Scottish crannogs dating to around 3600 to 3300 BC.

Cereal cultivation in Britain dates back to around 4000 BC and was probably introduced by migrant farmers from continental Europe.

The Neolithic period lasted from around 4000 to 2500 BC in Scotland.

Pottery was also introduced into Britain presently and there may be widespread evidence for domesticated products like milk products in molecular lipid fingerprints extracted from the material of those pots.

An aerial view of the crannog at Loch Langabhat (Fraser Sturt/PA)

Previously published evaluation of Roman pottery from Vindolanda (Hadrian’s Wall) demonstrated that specific lipid markers for cereals can survive absorbed in archaeological pottery preserved in waterlogged conditions and be detectable through a high-sensitivity approach.

Nonetheless, this was only 2,000 years old and from contexts where cereals were well-known to have been present.

The brand new findings show that cereal biomarkers may be preserved for hundreds of years longer under favourable conditions.

Researchers also found that lots of the pots analysed were intact and decorated, which could suggest they might have had some type of ceremonial purpose.

Dr Simon Hammann, previously of the University of Bristol, said: “It’s very exciting to see that cereal biomarkers in pots can actually survive under favourable conditions in samples from the time when cereals (and pottery) were introduced in Britain.

“Our lipid-based molecular method can complement archaeobotanical methods to research the introduction and spread of cereal agriculture.”

Dr Hammann is now based on the Friedrich-Alexander-Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg in Erlangen, Germany.

The research is published within the journal Nature Communications.

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