Insights into the diet of Neolithic Britons has been uncovered by researchers

During the research, a team of scientists led by the University of Bristol, found evidence that cereals, including wheat, were cooked in pots.

Using chemical analysis of ancient and incredibly well-preserved pottery found in the waters surrounding small artificial islands called crannogs in Scotland, the team were able to discern that cereals were cooked in pots and mixed with dairy products and occasionally meat, probably to create early forms of gruel and stew. They also discovered that the people visiting these crannogs used smaller pots to cook cereals with milk and larger pots for meat-based dishes.

The research was led by Drs Simon Hammann and Lucy Cramp at the University of Bristol’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Dr Hammann (who is now based at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Erlangen, Germany) 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 investigate the introduction and spread of cereal agriculture.”

Dr Cramp added: “This research gives us a window into the culinary traditions of early farmers living at the northwestern edge of Europe, whose lifeways are little understood. It gives us the first glimpse of the sorts of practices that were associated with these enigmatic islet locations.”  

Cereal cultivation in Britain dates back to around 4000 BCE and was probably introduced by migrant farmers from continental Europe. This is evidenced by some, often sparse and sporadic, recovery of preserved cereal grains and other debris found at Neolithic sites.

At this time pottery was also introduced into Britain and there is widespread evidence for domesticated products like milk products in molecular lipid fingerprints extracted from the fabric of these pots. However, with the exception of millet, it has not yet been possible to detect molecular traces of accompanying cereals in these lipid signatures, although these went on to become a major staple that dominates the global subsistence economy today.

Islands of Stone

Another fascinating element of this research was the fact that many of the pots analysed were intact and decorated, which could suggest they may have had some sort of ceremonial purpose. Since the actual function of the crannogs themselves is also not fully understood yet (with some being far too small for permanent occupation) the research provides new insights into possible ways these constructions were used.

Crannog sites in the Outer Hebrides are currently the focus of the four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded ‘Islands of Stone’ project, directed by two of the papers’ authors (Duncan Garrow from the University of Reading and Fraser Sturt from the University of Southampton) along with Angela Gannon of Historic Environment Scotland.

Professor Garrow said: “This research, undertaken by our colleagues at the University of Bristol, has hugely improved our knowledge of these sites in many exciting ways. We very much look forward to developing this collaborative research going forwards.”

The next stage of the research at the University of Bristol is an exploration of the relationship between these islets and other Neolithic occupation sites in the Hebridean region and beyond, as well as more extensive comparative study of the use of different vessel forms through surviving lipid residues.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

Image: An aerial view of a Scottish man-made crannog, credit F. Sturt.