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Europeans ate seaweed and freshwater plants for thousands of years

Seaweed and freshwater plants were consumed by our European ancestors for thousands of years, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications

The researchers say they have uncovered “definitive” archaeological proof that Europeans consumed seaweeds and other local freshwater plants during the mesolithic period, through the Neolithic transition to farming, and up until the Early Middle Ages. 

Seaweed consumption 

This evidence suggests that the once-popular dietary sources, which are not commonly consumed in present-day Europe, became sidelined only in more recent history.

While aquatic resources were used in ancient times, the recorded archaeological proof of seaweed consumption was scarce. Seaweed was typically considered to be useful for non-edible purposes such as fuel, fertilizers, or as wrappers for food.

According to historical records, there were laws in the 10th Century that governed seaweed collection in regions like Iceland, Brittany, and Ireland. 

By the 18th Century, seaweed was viewed as a famine food. Even though its consumption remains prominent in some Asian regions, due to both its nutritional and medicinal advantages, there is little consumption in Europe, noted the researchers.

Focus of the study 

A team of archaeologists led by the University of York set out to investigate by analyzing biomarkers from dental calculus of 74 individuals spanning 28 archaeological sites throughout Europe. 

Their findings offer “direct evidence for widespread consumption of seaweed and submerged aquatic and freshwater plants.” 

Samples that contained biomolecular traces revealed the consumption of red, green, or brown seaweeds, freshwater aquatic plants, and in one instance from Orkney, evidence of a Brassica, most likely sea kale.

 Biomolecular evidence 

“The biomolecular evidence in this study is over three thousand years earlier than historical evidence in the Far East,” said study co-author Dr. Stephen Buckley.

“Not only does this new evidence show that seaweed was being consumed in Europe during the Mesolithic Period around 8,000 years ago when marine resources were known to have been exploited, but that it continued into the Neolithic when it is usually assumed that the introduction of farming led to the abandonment of marine dietary resources.” 

“This strongly suggests that the nutritional benefits of seaweed were sufficiently well understood by these ancient populations that they maintained their dietary link with the sea.”

Sustainable diets

Out of approximately 10,000 seaweed species, only 145 are consumed today, mainly in Asia. The researchers hope this study will underline the potential benefits of reincorporating seaweed and local freshwater plants into modern diets. Such a shift could guide us toward a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.

Karen Hardy is a professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Glasgow and principal investigator of the Powerful Plants project.

“Today, seaweed and freshwater aquatic plants are virtually absent from traditional, western diets and their marginalisation as they gradually changed from food to famine resources and animal fodder, probably occurred over a long period of time, as has also been detected elsewhere with SOME plants,” said Professor Hardy. 

“Our study also highlights the potential for rediscovery of alternative, local, sustainable food resources that may contribute to addressing the negative health and environmental effects of over-dependence on a small number of mass-produced agricultural products that is a dominant feature of much of today’s western diet, and indeed the global long-distance food supply more generally.”

“It is very exciting to be able to show definitively that seaweeds and other local freshwater plants were eaten across a long period in our European past.”

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