Ancient humans in the Middle East ate cereals, legumes, dairy products and meat

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Ancient humans in the Middle East ate venison and peas and drank milk from sheep and goats, a very detailed study of the early human diet has revealed.

Research at a farming site in central Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, has uncovered an extraordinary picture of what humans ate more than 8,000 years ago.

Farmers in the settlement of Çatalhöyük had extensive knowledge of dairy farming from sheep and goats and ate meats which scientists were able to narrow down to specific species.

Researchers found evidence of foods that were eaten there by analysing proteins from residues in ancient pots and jars excavated from the site.

Although previous studies have looked at pot residues from the site, this was the first to use proteins, which can be used to identify plants and animals more specifically and sometimes down to the species level. 

The dairy products were shown to have come mostly from sheep and goats, and also from the cattle family. 

Cereals eaten by the ancient humans included barley and wheat, and legumes included peas and vetches.

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of York carried out the research.  

The non-dairy animal products, which might have included meat and blood, came primarily from the goat and sheep family, and in some cases from cattle and deer.

Many of the pots contained evidence of multiple food types in a single vessel, suggesting that the residents mixed foods in their cuisine, potentially as porridges or soups. 

Another vessel indicated that the ancient farmers separated fresh milk into curds and whey. 

Lead author Jessica Hendy said: ‘This is particularly interesting because it suggests that the residents may have been using dairy production methods that separated fresh milk into curds and whey. 

‘It also suggests that they had a special vessel for holding the whey afterwards, meaning that they used the whey for additional purposes after the curd was separated.’  

Other research techniques can reveal broad classes of food – such as evidence of dairy or animal fat – but an analysis of proteins allows a much more detailed picture of past cuisine, the scientists said.  

The residues on the insides of the ceramics were exceptionally well-preserved and contained a ‘wealth of information’, they said.  

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