Inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides cooked wheat porridge with milk more than five thousand years ago

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists have uncovered Neolithic culinary traditions by analyzing traces of cereals, milk and meat in Scottish crannog pottery.

Traces of the first domesticated plants and animals in Britain and Ireland date back to around the end of the 5th millennium BC. At the same time, according to archaeological finds, other changes took place in the life of the Neolithic communities: ceramics and new settlement and burial practices appeared.

The analysis of ancient DNA confirms the opinion that agricultural migrants from continental Europe are “guilty” of these changes. In this case, they had to bring their agricultural traditions to the islands.

Indeed, archaeologists regularly find grain when excavating Neolithic sites – but, as a rule, in small quantities and not in vessels. That is, it is impossible to understand exactly how people of that time ate cereals from such finds.

Inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides cooked wheat porridge with milk more than five thousand years ago 2
Neolithic pottery and the places where it was found: a) an Ansten bowl, b) a large shard and a reconstruction of a ribbed jug, c) aerial view of one of the crannogs, d) a map of Lewis Island, where the finds are marked

Nature Communications published an article by an international group of scientists that fills this gap. Researchers led by Simon Hammann of the University of Bristol (UK) have analyzed pottery from four Neolithic crannogs in the Outer Hebrides.

Crannogs are artificial or semi-artificial islands located on lakes, rivers and bays. Presumably, such islands were easier to defend. It is believed that they were distributed throughout Scotland.

Unfortunately, the Scottish lakes and swamps were actively drained back in those days when there was no one to explore the crannogs. Therefore, the oldest and well-preserved Neolithic (were still medieval) examples remained in the Outer Hebrides.

As a result of recent excavations on the islands of Lewis and Harris and North Uist, scientists have at their disposal a fairly large collection of ceramics that have been reliably dated.

Hammann and his colleagues selected 59 sherds from a variety of crockery, including traditional Hebridean jugs, as well as Ansten pottery (shallow bowls with a grooved pattern).

Using the methods of gas chromatography and high-resolution mass spectrometry, the authors of the work studied the organic remains from these shards.

On them, they found biomarkers of cereals (including wheat) and other products that were cooked in vessels in 3600-3300 BC.

According to scientists, this is evidence that wheat was present in the diet of the local Neolithic inhabitants much more often than previously thought.

The fact is that almost all previous finds of cereals made in the territory of modern Scotland and related to the Neolithic (with the exception of a couple of early Neolithic sites) showed a noticeable predominance of barley over wheat.

The difference was so great that some researchers even suggested that only barley was domesticated by people in this region, and that two-grain wheat was a weed that polluted the crop. Consequently, wheat grains were mixed with barley grains by accident.

Inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides cooked wheat porridge with milk more than five thousand years ago 3
Isle of Lewis

New work reveals people didn’t cook wheat mixed with barley. That is, there is no question of any accidental entry of its grains into pots. People ate this cereal quite consciously – and if so, then, most likely, they also domesticated wheat.

At the same time, there is evidence of a fairly wide distribution of domestic animals and dairy farming among the Neolithic farmers of Britain and Ireland. Traces of milk and meat also appeared on the studied ceramics.

Moreover, lipids of both wheat and milk remained on some samples at the same time. It is likely, the researchers note, that people cooked milk porridge. Or at least they added milk to wheat boiled in water (perhaps crushed).

The authors point out that there is a close relationship between the size of the pottery and its use. In vessels with a narrow neck, milk was stored, with a wider one, grain.

And on the Ansten bowls, from which they used ready-made food, there were lipids and milk, and grains, as well as meat (the latter – separately from the first two types of food).


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