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Ancient cooking pots point to gradual transition to agriculture

Oct. 24, 2011
Courtesy of PNAS
and World Science staff

Hu­mans may have un­der­gone a grad­u­al rath­er than an ab­rupt tran­si­tion to farm­ing from fish­ing, hunt­ing, and gath­er­ing, a study of an­cient pot­tery sug­gests. 

Ol­i­ver E. Craig of the Uni­vers­ity of York, U.K. and col­leagues an­a­lyzed cook­ing residues in 132 ce­ram­ic pots from the West­ern Bal­tic re­gions of North­ern Eu­rope. The team sought to de­ter­mine wheth­er the residues were from land, sea or fresh­wa­ter or­gan­isms. 

A 6,000 year old cook­ing pot and wood­en spoon re­cov­ered from the Åmose bog in Zea­land, Den­mark. (Im­age cour­tesy An­ders Fischer.)


The re­search­ers stud­ied pots from 15 sites dat­ing to around 4,000 B.C., when the first ev­i­dence of do­mes­ti­cat­ed an­i­mals and plants had been iden­ti­fied in the re­gion. Some of the settle­ments are now under­water and re­quired divers to ex­tract arti­facts. The study is pub­lished in this week’s early on­line edi­tion of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.

The re­sults showed that fish­ing con­tin­ued to con­trib­ute to the di­et af­ter the ad­vent of farm­ing and do­mes­tica­t­ion, the au­thors said; pots from coast­al ar­eas con­tained residues en­riched for a form of car­bon found in ma­rine or­gan­isms. 

A fifth of coast­al pots con­tained oth­er bi­o­log­i­cal traces of aquat­ic or­gan­isms, in­clud­ing fats and oils ab­sent in ter­res­tri­al an­i­mals and plants, Craig and col­leagues said. At in­land sites, 28 per­cent of pots con­tained residues from aquat­ic or­gan­isms, which seemed to be from fresh­wa­ter fish. 

The au­thors al­so re­ported what they call clear ev­i­dence that once farm­ing ar­rived, ce­ram­ic ves­sels were used across the re­gion to pro­cess dairy prod­ucts from do­mes­ti­cat­ed an­i­mals. The find­ings sug­gest that al­though farm­ing was in­tro­duced quite rap­id­ly, it may not have caused a dra­mat­ic shift from hunter-gatherer life, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.


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Humans may have undergone a gradual rather than an abrupt transition from fishing, hunting, and gathering to farming, a study of ancient pottery suggests. Oliver E. Craig of the University of York, U.K. and colleagues analyzed cooking residues preserved in 132 ceramic vessels from the Western Baltic regions of Northern Europe. The team sought to determine whether these residues were from terrestrial, marine, or freshwater organisms. The researchers studied pots from 15 sites dating to around 4,000 B.C., when the first evidence of domesticated animals and plants was identified in the region. The study is published in this week’s early online edition of the journal pnas. The results showed that fishing continued to contribute to human diet after the advent of farming and domestication, the authors said; pots from coastal areas contained residues enriched for a form of carbon found in marine organisms. A fifth of coastal pots contained other biological traces of aquatic organisms, including fats and oils absent in terrestrial animals and plants, Craig and colleagues said. At inland sites, 28 percent of pots contained residues from aquatic organisms, which seemed to be from freshwater fish. The authors also report clear evidence that once farming arrived, ceramic vessels were used across the region to process dairy products from domesticated animals. The findings suggest that although farming was introduced quite rapidly, it may not have caused a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life, according to the authors.