A European team of researchers led by the universities of York and Bradford in the United Kingdom has discovered that humans modified their behaviour slowly rather than quickly when it came to switching their method in hunting for and gathering their food. Presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the findings unlock the mystery of this transition with help from residues in ancient cooking pots.
Scientists from Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom evaluated cooking residues preserved in 133 ceramic vessels from the western Baltic regions of northern Europe in order to determine if these residues originated from land, sea or freshwater organisms. The researchers assessed the ceramic pots from 15 sites dating to around 4 000 BC, a period in which the region's domesticated animals and plants began to emerge.
The findings indicate that humans had no qualms about using the advent of farming and domestication to their advantage vis-a-vis fish and other marine resources ... albeit slowly. The pots from coastal sites contained residues enriched in a form of carbon found in marine organisms.
'Farming transformed societies globally,' the authors write. 'Yet, despite more than a century of research, there is little consensus on the speed or completeness of this fundamental change and, consequently, on its principal drivers. Ceramic containers are found ubiquitously on these sites and contain remarkably well-preserved lipids derived from the original use of the vessel. Reconstructing culinary practices from this ceramic record can contribute to longstanding debates concerning the origins of farming.'
About 20% of coastal pots contained other biochemical traces of marine organisms, according to the researchers. This included fats and oils that were not found in animals and plants based on land. At inland sites, 28% of pots contained residues from marine organisms, which appeared to be from freshwater fish.
'This research provides clear evidence people across the western Baltic continued to exploit marine and freshwater resources despite the arrival of domesticated animals and plants,' explains lead author Dr Oliver Craig from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. 'Although farming was introduced rapidly across this region, it may not have caused such a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life as we previously thought.'
For his part, Carl Heron, a professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, says: 'Our data set represents the first large-scale study combining a wide range of molecular evidence and single-compound isotope data to discriminate terrestrial, marine and freshwater resources processed in archaeological ceramics, and it provides a template for future investigations into how people used pots in the past.'
The team says while they quickly identified changes in pottery use, their data 'challenge the popular notions that economies were completely transformed with the arrival of farming and that Neolithic pottery was exclusively associated with produce from domesticated animals and plants'.
The study was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom.