Foraging for cereals

Food debris found on teeth and ground stone tools suggest that hunter-gatherers in the Balkans were consuming wild cereal grains before the arrival of agriculture.
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Early Mesolithic teeth with dental calculus from an individual from the archaeological site of Lepenski Vir, Serbia: Image credit: Cristiani et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Before humans invented agriculture and the first farmers appeared in southwestern Asia, other ancient foragers (also known as hunter-gatherers) in southeastern Europe had already developed a taste for consuming wild plants. There is evidence to suggest that these foragers were intensely gathering wild cereal grains before the arrival of agriculture. However, until now, the only place outside southwestern Asia this has been shown to have occurred is in Greece, and is dated around 20,000 years ago.

In the past, researchers proposed that forager societies in the Balkans also consumed wild cereals before transitioning to agriculture. But this has been difficult to prove because plant foods are less likely to preserve than animal bones and teeth, making them harder to detect in prehistoric contexts.

To overcome this, Cristiani et al. studied teeth from 60 individuals found in archaeological sites between Serbia and Romania, which are attributed to the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods. Food particles extracted from crusty deposits on the teeth (called the dental calculus) were found to contain structures typically found in plants. In addition, Cristiani et al. discovered similar plant food residues on ground stone tools which also contained traces of wear associated with the processing of wild cereals.

These findings suggest that foragers in the central Balkans were already consuming certain species of wild cereal grains 11,500 years ago, before agriculture arrived in Europe. It is possible that sharing knowledge about plant resources may have helped introduce domesticated plant species in to this region as early as 6500 BC.

This work challenges the deep-rooted idea that the diet of hunter-gatherers during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods primarily consisted of animal proteins. In addition, it highlights the active role the eating habits of foragers might have played in introducing certain domesticated plant species that have become primary staples of our diet today.