Stone Age people were eating porridge 32,000 years ago

Archaeologists say they have found traces of wild oats on grinding tools from about 32,000 years ago, about 20,000 years before formal farming is thought to have been established. The prehistoric people may have baked or boiled the oats and made flatbread, according to the researchers. This research, which has been underway for a number of years, seems to conflict with the belief that Stone Age people were largely carnivorous.

Researchers have assumed that the primary foods Paleolithic (Stone Age) peoples relied on were meats and fats. They say botanical traces on food-preparation tools and stone vessels are rare at Stone Age archaeological sites. However, in the past several years of analysis of stone tools has revealed the presence of traces of wild grains and seeds and roots of cattails and ferns.

A recent fad diet, the paleo diet, may need to be reconsidered in light of this new research.

The researchers in this latest study, led by Marta Mariotti Lippi of Italy’s University of Florence, say the finding is the earliest known preparation of oats for human consumption. She and her team examined a stone grinding tool from Grotta Paglicci in southern Italy and found traces of oats and evidence of grinding from 32,000 years ago, says an article in New Scientist.

The news follows research Mariotti Lippi participated in several years ago that found traces of wild starch on grinding tools in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic from at least 30,000 years ago. That finding was announced in a 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The grinding stone from Grotta Paglicci in Italy that has residue of oats on it from 32,000 years ago

The grinding stone from Grotta Paglicci in Italy that has residue of oats on it from 32,000 years ago (Image credit: Stefano Ricci)

“We’ve had evidence of the processing of roots and cattails, but here we’ve got a grain, and a grain that we’re very familiar with,” Matt Pope, an archaeologist on the team, told New Scientist. “If we were to look more systematically for ground stone technology we would find this is a more widespread phenomenon.”

The study Pope refers to says, however, that evidence of wild grain consumption also goes back to the Upper Paleolithic at a site in the Levant. The researchers in that 2010 article say they found evidence of processing of grains and seeds in the Sea of Galilee site of Ohalo. It was also in this part of the world, known as the Fertile Crescent, that agriculture is first believed to have been practiced starting around 12,000 years ago.

“European Paleolithic populations are generally considered to have been predominantly carnivorous, because the evidence for plant subsistence is limited. … Currently evidence for the Paleolithic human diet is obtained from bone chemistry, dental microwear, and zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical remains. For a variety of … reasons, the last form of evidence is rare at Paleolithic sites, and Paleolithic populations are primarily considered as hunters,” Mariotti Lippi and fellow researchers wrote in 2010. “Previous studies at Dolní Věstonice, Klisoura, Kebara, and Ohalo identified plant remains, plausibly representing an important element of the diet, and the last-mentioned site also documents routine processing of wild cereals and effective methods for cooking ground seeds. A number of Upper Paleolithic sites also yielded grindstones, some of which may have served for grinding plant tissue, whereas others were used for grinding ochre. Here we report on starch grains recovered on grinding stones from three Mid-Upper Paleolithic (Gravettian or Gorodtsovian) sites across Europe.”

They say their analysis of starches and wear on tools from the sites shows that pounding and grinding of wild plants was done relatively early in the Upper Paleolithic.

Erik Trinkhaus of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, calls the findings another example of how advanced the people of Europe’s Gravettian culture were. They produced technology, art and elaborate burials.

Paintings in Altamira Cave in Spain include some from the Gravettian culture.

Paintings in Altamira Cave in Spain include some from the Gravettian culture. (Photo source: Wikmedia Commons)

 “These people were described 15 years ago as ‘Hunters of the Golden Age,’ and the details of that are still being filled out,” Trinkhaus told New Scientist.

Mariotti Lippi and her team hope to analyze more stone tools for evidence and traces of grain or root grinding. Trinkhaus said the evidence may even predate 32,000 years ago.

In 2010 Loren Cordain published the book The Paleo Diet that advised readers to eat like a prehistoric cave dweller to lose pounds and stay healthy. He advised eating lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, eggs, vegetables and cutting out wheat, dairy, sugar, potatoes and processed foods. Some researchers equate the rise of agriculture and the introduction of grains into the diet with corresponding higher rates of disease in the human fossil record. This study shows that even many thousands of years ago people were deviating from the “paleo diet” to eat grains and roots.

Featured image: An artist’s impression of life in the Stone Age (Wikipedia)

By Mark Miller

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