With the help of some high-tech wizardry, some 8,000-year-old leftovers inside a bunch of broken pottery are being used by archaeologists to work out what Neolithic Europeans had for dinner – and it’s not quite what they expected.
Reporting in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, archaeologists led by the University of Bristol in the UK studied an area called the Iron Gates, found along the Danube River on the border between current-day Romania and Serbia. This is a prime site for research as it was home to both Late Mesolithic foragers and the first Neolithic cultures, and early agriculture was used there.
Typically, when cultures move away from foraging and hunting, they start to eat lots of meat and dairy. However, that’s not what the pots showed. Instead, this particular group of people in southeastern Europe appear to have been loyal fish-eaters, just as they probably were before the advent of agriculture.
The content of their diet was discovered by analyzing organic residue on over 200 pottery shards found in the area. Using a technique known as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers were able to determine the identity of the fatty acids in the residue and then work out which food they came from.
“The findings revealed that the majority of Neolithic pots analysed here were being used for processing fish or other aquatic resources,” Dr Lucy Cramp, from the University of Bristol's Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, said in a statement.
"This is a significant contrast with an earlier study showing the same type of pottery in the surrounding region was being used for cattle, sheep or goat meat and dairy products.
"It is also completely different to nearly all other assemblages of Neolithic farmer-type pottery previously analysed from across Europe (nearly 1,000 residues) which also show predominantly terrestrial- based resources being prepared in cooking pots (cattle/sheep/goat, possibly also deer), even from locations near major rivers or the coast."
Despite these people being able to domesticate plants and animals, it appears they were still big on eating fish. However, this is pretty unusual because agriculture is normally a more efficient and reliable method of feeding a community of hungry mouths. Although the researchers are not certain why this population stuck to their fishy diet, they speculate that it's most likely due to the Danube River's irresistibly huge sturgeon, which migrate up the river towards the Black Sea.