Neolithic veggie meal scraps found in ancient pottery

Humans prepared wild grains, leafy and aquatic plants in pottery vessels as early as 10,200 years ago. Amy Middleton reports.

Painted prehistoric rock art in the Libyan Sahara. The painting is full of human figures hunting with spears, and now new analysis of ceramic pieces shows they cooked plant matter too.
Joe & Clair Carnegie / Libyan Soup / Getty Images

Wild grains and leafy greens in a hand-thrown pottery bowl – no, it’s not the lunch special at the fancy café down the road, but a meal prepared by a person some 10,000 years ago is what is now the Libyan Sahara.

Exceptionally preserved archaeobotanical remains from Takarkori rock shelter (Tadrart Acacus, Libya), dating from around 9,500 years ago. Click to enlarge.
The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara / Sapienza University of Rome

The finding, published in Nature Plants, comes from a research team led by Julie Dunn at the University of Bristol in the UK, who studied shards of ceramics found at the Takarkori and Uan Afuda sites in the Libyan Sahara.

In them, the team found signs of prepared and cooked vegetation.

The ceramic remnants date back to the Early Holocene – between 8,200 and 6,400 BCE – when the Sahara was a lush, rich environment home to large animals and abundant aquatic life in river systems and lakes.

Human populations living there at the time used pottery to process animal products such as milk, but no one knew if they’d been used to prepared plant cuisine.

Dunn and her team analysed chemical residue on more than 100 pottery shards.

Some showed traces of plant wax derivatives, suggesting the pots were used to process grasses and aquatic plants gathered from the savannahs and lakes, alongside animal remains.

This period in human development is characterised by an increase in cooking, making more types of plant digestible.

“The invention of thermally resistant ceramic cooking vessels around 15,000 years ago was a major advance in human diet and nutrition,” the researchers write.

“These findings provide unequivocal evidence for extensive early processing of plant products in pottery vessels, likely to have been invented in this region for this purpose.”

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