The invention of pottery, thousands of years before agriculture, helped humanity conquer the world. Residues from prehistoric cooking pots have helped us identify what was being cooked, dealing a further blow to the credibility of the “Paleolithic diet”.
Today Takarkori and Uan Afuda are part of the Libyan Sahara desert, among the most barren places on Earth. Ten thousand years ago, however, the region around them was a fertile grassland. Rock shelters made excellent homes for those who hunted and gathered the abundant food resources nearby.
Shards of pottery dated to 8200-6400 BCE from these sites have been found to preserve traces of the plants that were collected there, giving us an idea of what our ancestors at the time ate. Curiously, previously identified ceramic pots of similar age showed traces of animal residue, but nothing from plants
The 56 remnants with detectable plant residues suggest the pots were used more to process fruits, grains, and seeds, rather than leafy plants. Animal products were also found, but were less common. Combined with the discovery that inhabitants of Europe were making porridge from oats 32,000 years ago to show, the discovery demonstrates processed grains have been a big part of our diet for a very long time.
Aquatic plants were also popular. Hard as it is to believe today, the hills of what is now the border region between Libya, Niger, and Algeria were then filled with lakes and rivers. It appears that cattails from these wetlands were a favored meal.
Some of what Dunne found is puzzling. Many of the pots show traces of lauric and myristic acids, which are rare in most plants. Both are abundant in palm kernel oil, the paper notes. However, the authors add: “The date palm was not thought to have been present in the Sahara at that time, its natural range in prehistory being restricted to Southwest Asia.”
Ceramic art is much more ancient, but pottery for practical purposes appears to have been invented twice, 16,000 years ago in East Asia and 4,000 years after that in North Africa. Other populations subsequently copied the very useful technology. Although the first potters were almost certainly semi-sedentary, agriculture was not adopted in the region until the Sahara began to dry up many years later.
Dunne and her co-authors point out that the increased cooking opportunities ceramics made available would have allowed the production of foods soft enough for infants to eat. This allowed children to be weaned earlier, reduced the gap between births and helped trigger the human population explosion.