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Baltic pottery reveals ancient culinary traditions

The chemical analysis of ancient pottery from the Baltic region has revealed that hunter-gatherer groups in northern Europe had culturally distinct cuisine as far back as 7,000 years ago. 

Study co-lead author Dr. Harry Robson is an expert in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York.

“People are often surprised to learn that hunter-gatherers used pottery to store, process and cook food, as carrying cumbersome ceramic vessels seems inconsistent with a nomadic life-style,” said Dr. Robson.

“Our study looked at how this pottery was used and found evidence of a rich variety of foods and culinary traditions in different hunter-gatherer groups.”

The investigation was focused on over 500 hunter-gatherer vessels from 61 archaeological sites throughout the Baltic region.

The researchers found evidence of strikingly different food preferences and distinctive culinary practices among different communities, even in regions that had the same resources available. 

Ceramic pots were used to store and prepare a diverse range of foods, including fish, beaver, wild boar, bear, deer, freshwater fish hazelnuts and plants.

According to the study authors, the findings suggest that the culinary tastes of ancient people were not solely dictated by the foods available in a particular area, but were also influenced by the traditions and habits of cultural groups.

The researchers were surprised to find evidence of dairy products in some of the pottery. This means that some hunter-gatherers were interacting with early farmers.

“The presence of dairy fats in several hunter-gatherer vessels was an unexpected example of culinary ‘cultural fusion’. The discovery has implications for our understanding of the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to early farming and demonstrates that this commodity was either exchanged or perhaps even looted from nearby farmers,” explained Dr. Robson.

Study co-lead author Dr. Blandine Courel is an expert in Archaeology Science at the British Museum.

“Despite a common biota that provided lots of marine and terrestrial resources for their livelihoods, hunter-gatherer communities around the Baltic Sea basin did not use pottery for the same purpose,” said Dr. Courel.

“Our study suggests that culinary practices were not influenced by environmental constraints but rather were likely embedded in some long-standing culinary traditions and cultural habits.”

The experts used molecular and isotopic techniques to analyze the fragments of pottery.

 from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: 

“Chemical analysis of the remains of foods and natural products prepared in pottery has already revolutionized our understanding of early agricultural societies, we are now seeing these methods being rolled out to study prehistoric hunter-gatherer pottery. The results suggest that they too had complex and culturally distinct cuisines,” concluded study senior author Professor Oliver Craig.

The study is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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