What did prehistoric hunter-gatherers eat? Before the age of intercontinental travel by grapes, quinoa and lambs, we might have assumed that people were locavores eating anything and everything they could catch or find. It was also assumed that hunter-gatherers would throw their food on open fires, not stew it in pots, which were assumed to have only been invented with the sedentary, agricultural lifestyle.
All this would imply that hunter-gatherers occupying a given environment would eat more or less the same things. But a new study shows unexpected dietary variation between groups of hunter-gatherers living cheek by jowl in the Baltic region 6,000 to 7,500 years ago. The various communities seem to have had quite different culinary cultures.
The findings, based on an analysis of residues in prehistoric cooking pots, have been reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science by Blandine Courel of the British Museum and Harry Robson and Alexandre Lucquin of the University of York with an international team of colleagues.
In the eastern Baltic, the peoples mainly used their pots for cooking treats from freshwater and marine environments, the team reports. In the southeastern Baltic the hunter-gatherers had a taste for animals that didn’t chew the cud – chiefly swine.
In the western Baltic the residues indicate that the pots were used to cook or store ruminants such as deer, elk and/or aurochs and, it seems, on occasion dairy as well. That was unexpected among non-sedentary people who didn’t have domesticated animals. In general, dairy ingestion was thought to be a later development.
The analysis of fat residues left on ancient artifacts, from stone tools to clay pots, has become huge in recent years and can shed light on dietary habits going back even hundreds of thousands of years. In Israel, for instance, scientists from Tel Aviv University have detected animal fat on stone tools dating back half a million years, which is before Homo sapiens even began to evolve. It seems local Homo erectus were dining on elephants.
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A separate study based on residue analysis has even helped solve a mystery bedeviling archaeologists for decades: what archaic hominins were doing with crudely shaped stone balls for over 2 million years. The answer is, apparently, cracking large animal bones to get at the marrow.
And now we have residue analysis of 528 cooking pots going back as much as 7,000 years, which surprisingly shows that the different communities in close proximity in the Baltic used their pots for different things. The archaeologists even suspect that the fact the hunter-gatherers had cooking pots at all may have contributed to culinary creativity, which makes sense. Instead of roasting a haunch of the kill over an open fire, they could concoct flavorful soups and stews featuring varied ingredients – which probably included some plants.
Since the residue analysis is of fat, and plants don’t have much of that, it’s hard to know. Other studies have shown that among the flora, they ate nuts and plantains (a type of banana), grasses, mistletoe and berries, Courel and the team note.
To get one point clear: In the fifth and sixth millennia B.C.E., the period when the clay pots analyzed in the study were used, the peoples of the Baltic were still hunting and gathering.
Over in the Mediterranean, including the Levant, early agriculture began around 12,000 years ago (with sporadic stabs at farming as much as 23,000 years ago). The people gradually domesticated various grains, legumes and animals, though they still augmented their diet by hunting and gathering.
In the Baltic, subsistence farming, indicating a sedentary lifestyle, only began in about 4,000 B.C.E., Robson of the University of York told Haaretz.
Actually, the picture of the development of agriculture in that region is complex, he says: “In southern Scandinavia, which includes Denmark, northern Germany and southern Sweden, agriculture appears at around 4000 B.C.E., but in other areas such as Lithuania it appears approximately 1,100 years later.”
Why so late? Possibly because of a mixture of different migration patterns by different peoples, Robson says. Thus in the earliest Neolithic period – marked by the advent of farming – there were probably communities where hunting and gathering persisted for longer.
The patterns of pottery also differ. The eastern Baltic, Lithuania and Estonia features the so-called Corded Ware culture that came with a migration of the Yamnaya people from Central Asia, while other areas featured Funnel Beaker pottery. The differing patterns of agricultural development and pottery seem to have resulted from migrations of different people across a wide geographic area and across several millennia, Robson says.
In any case, if once pottery had been thought to have only developed contemporaneously with early farming, the evidence indicates otherwise.
The assumption had been that if you were a nomad carrying a flint-tipped spear in one hand, a cadaver for supper on your shoulder and a kiddie on your back, subsisting on what you could kill, scavenge or grub out of the earth, you didn’t want to lug about heavy cookware. So the hypothesis had been that pottery was the province of the settled: people who had stopped roaming about and became sedentary or semi-sedentary.
Yet firing clay to make vessels may have begun as much as 18,000 years ago in eastern Asia, many thousands of years before the advent of farming. In the Levant on the other hand, the early pottery stage is thought to have been about 8,000 years ago – a couple of thousand years after the early farmers settled down. Also, in much of Europe, early pottery seems to have emerged in association with early farming and animal husbandry.
In the eastern Baltic and on the fringe of Russia, the earliest stage of pottery is found about 7,500 years ago. In the western Baltic, northern Germany, Denmark and southern Sweden, potting began about 6,500 years ago. As in parts of China and Japan it predated farming. Evidence from Siberia and parts of Eastern Europe shows a similar decoupling between early agriculture and pottery.
Were hunter-gatherers potting? Maybe they were influenced by nearby farming societies, or maybe they stole the domesticated animals from sedentary neighbors. Hard to tell. Maybe roaming hunter-gatherers who had learned how to make pottery spread the skill to other hunter-gatherers.
The bottom line is that clearly, the development and use of pottery didn’t have to rely on the transition to village life.
The study in question encompassed pottery shards found in the eastern Baltic, northwest Russia, southern Lithuania, Belarus, eastern Poland, Denmark, northern Germany and southern Sweden. It bears adding that the researchers found “surprisingly little evidence” for the use of ceramics for nonculinary activities, the team says. The pots were chiefly for cooking.
The mystery of the milk
And what did the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic region cook in their pots? Previous studies, Robson explains, indicated that coastal communities and people living near freshwater sources such as lakes or rivers cooked aquatic delicacies in their pots.
The new residue data was a surprise. “A lot of the communities in the western Baltic, Denmark, northern Germany and southern Sweden lived near water sources, rich with aquatic animals – even today in Denmark you’re less than 100 kilometers [62 miles] from the coast,” Robson says. “However, the pots had not been primarily used to cook aquatic animals, they incorporated wild boar as well as different deer in their pots.”
In the eastern Baltic, in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, both the coastal prehistoric folk and the inlanders seem to have chiefly used their pots to cook “aquatic animals,” which included not only fish and shellfish but seals and beavers. Possibly the advent of the ability to stew led these communities to combine foods in a way you can’t on the barbecue, widening their culinary horizons.
“It was the dairy that was the biggest surprise,” Robson says – though that was found in just five of the pots out of the 528 the researchers tested. Initially, they were cautious with the interpretation, though with rigorous statistical modeling they concluded with confidence that dairy had been in those five pots too.
The shock was understandable. First, without the domestication of animals – and there is no evidence that the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic region had domestic animals, Robson says – where would hunter-gatherers get milk? They’d hardly be milking female animals they killed.
Second, though the mammalian default is to nurse newborns, mammals – which include us primates – typically lose lactase, the enzyme responsible for digesting milk, after weaning. An adult mammal that eats dairy just gets gas. Even cats are usually lactose-intolerant after infancy, despite any predilection adult felines may evince for cream.
Yet it was reported in 2019 that Neolithic Britons also ate dairy 6,000 years ago, based on an analysis of tartar on their teeth. At the time they were the earliest-known consumers of milk; they began consuming it as soon as sheep and cows reached the island. And just this week a report in Nature described dairying in the Sahara about 7,000 years ago (it was lush back then); also a different study in Nature reported this month on cow, sheep and goat milk residue found on clay pots from 5,500 years ago in Britain.
So either the European Neolithic peoples very quickly developed lactase persistence – the ability to digest dairy in adulthood – or they were highly tolerant of abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and flatulence.
Is it possible that dairy consumption commonly began earlier than we thought? “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. It’s complex,” Robson answers: It was probably connected to various migrations of early Neolithic farmers. “In some European regions, there are some early farmers who used pottery for processing dairy products, and others where different resources had been cooked/processed in the pots despite being contemporaneous. At what point in time the hunter-gatherers are replaced by agriculturalists is one of the main topics we’re still discussing,” he says.
It bears adding that the five pots with dairy residue were not found at one spot but at three different sites, two in Germany and one in Poland – “which would at that point have been probably within 1,000 kilometers of the nearest farmers,” Robson adds.
Maybe the hunter-gatherers did have domestic animals earlier than we thought. Maybe the hunter-gatherers exchanged something for milk. Or maybe they stole it. Ample studies have demonstrated that violence is not the invention of modern civilization.