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Plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies of SE Europe and Italy

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - HIDDEN FOODS (Plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies of SE Europe and Italy)

Reporting period: 2018-05-01 to 2019-10-31

Our understanding of human dietary preferences before the introduction of agriculture has suffered by the poor survival of plant remains in early prehistoric contexts and the application of protein-sensitive approaches to ancient dietary reconstruction. As a consequence, there is a general (mis)perception of ancient hunter-gatherer subsistence as mainly based on hunting and fishing with the role of plant foods remaining one of the major issues of World Prehistory. However, it is unlikely that diet during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods was low in carbohydrates as roots, tubers, and seeds remains have been recovered at many archaeological sites of Europe and across the world.

HIDDEN FOODS will develop a breakthrough integrated approach based on a rigorous experimental framework, which will be key for interpreting direct and indirect evidence of plant foods preserved on archaeological artefacts, human remains and sediments. This novel methodological framework will be tested against Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic archaeological evidence (from ca. 40,000 to ca. 7900 calibrated years before present) of Italy and the Balkans.

Overall, the project has the ambitious objectives:
(a) obtaining incontrovertible evidence about the role of plant foods in European early prehistoric dietary preferences;
(b) exploring the causal links between plant foods and technological changes (e.g. the appearance of plant foods processing tools); and
(c) identifying the role of dietary preferences in Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic forager’s health status.
During the period from 1st of May 2018 to the 31st of October 2019 the project work has focused on: (a) collecting samples from archaeological artefacts and human remains; (b) analysing stone tools, human dental calculus and flotation;(c) implementing reference collection and methodological framework for interpreting plant food residues in material culture, sediments and dental calculus; (c) carrying out systematic flotation activity; (d) analysing dental calculus; and (e) AMS dating.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIAL SAMPLING AND ANALYSIS. Dental calculus samples from Palaeolithic/Mesolithic individuals of Italy were submitted for metagenomic analysis. Functional analysis of stone tools from Mesolithic sites of northern Italy and Serbia was completed; Palaeolithic macro tools from Bosnia and Herzegovina were sampled for functional analysis. Results were published (

CONSTRUCTION OF REFERENCE COLLECTION OF PLANTS AND EXPERIMENTALLY USED STONE TOOLS. By the end of October 2019, HIDDEN FOODS reference collection includes more than 120 experimental macro-tools used in activities involving plant foods and animal as well as mineral matters. Experimental tools have been analysed using 3D photogrammetry, 3D modeling and GIS software (QGIS). Results were published (doi: 10.1007/s12520-019-00824-5.B.).

SYSTEMATIC FLOTATION ACTIVITY. RA1 continued the analysis of the macro-botanical remains collected at archaeological sites in Italy (Serratura, Cavallo, Val di Landro, Tagliente, Bombrini, and Romito), Croatia (Vlakno), Montenegro (Vrbička) and Serbia (Vlasac and Dubocka).

ANALYSIS OF THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL DENTAL CALCULUS. Results of the analysis of dietary and non-dietary debris in human dental calculus of Palaeolithic/Mesolithic individuals from northern Italy were submitted for publication before the end of the reporting period. Results of the analysis of dental calculus from Mesolithic individuals from the Danube Gorges (Serbia) will be presented at the America Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Los Angeles.

AMS DATING. Seeds, human bone as well as osseous artefacts were collected during 2018 at various sites in Italy, Montenegro, Serbia and submitted for AMS dating. More AMS dates framing the archaeological Mesolithic contexts investigated by the HIDDEN FOODS were published: doi:10.1038/s41598-018-31884-7 ;

DEFINING ANCIENT FORAGER DIETARY PREFERENCES AND THE ROLE OF PLANT FOODS IN ANCIENT HYGIENE. The analysis of masticatory macro-wear and dental pathologies on human teeth from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic individuals of Grotta Continenza site in Italy was completed. Metagenomic analyses of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic dental calculus samples were carried out at the aDNA facilities of the University of Vienna and Oslo. An article discussing both metagenomic and dietary analysis of Mesolithic dental calculus from the Balkans is under submission.
During the period from 1st of May 2018 to the 31st of October 2019 the quantitative methodology for interpreting macro-artefacts uses was implemented. Results were published:

A Special Issue entitled “Quantitative approaches to use-wear and residue analyses for the study of prehistoric stone tool technology” (edited by.Cristiani E. et al.) was accepted for publication in Journal of Archaeological Science – Reports.

Additional dental calculus of 52 Mesolithic individuals from five different sites along the River Danube were analyzed to uncover direct evidence of human-plant interactions for dietary and other everyday purposes. Overall, HIDDEN FOODS results indicate that from the beginning of the tenth millennium BC, local foragers acquired and developed familiarity with important tribes of starchy plants: Triticea, Avena/Poaeae, Andropogonae, Fabeae, Paniceae and Fagaceae. This conclusion challenges the hitherto prevailing view of the forager Mesolithic diet in this region dominated by animal protein food. We also suggest that such a familiarity might have played an important role in the process of introducing domesticated plants into the region in the second half seventh millennium BC.

Data from the analysis of micro-debris in dental calculus were complemented through the metagenomic analysis carried out on dental calculus from Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Early Neolithic humans of the Danube Gorges (Serbia), Vlakno Cave (Croatia) and Grotta Continenza (Italy). Metagenomics analysis was aimed to reconstruct the oral microbiome of ancient forager lifeways before the advent of the Neolithic in Europe, and track potential dietary sources. Microbiota of 35 foragers was reconstructed, and compared with those of other ancient and modern individuals, including Neanderthal. The results obtained so far demonstrate that foraging lifestyles are associated with distinctive oral microbiota.

HIDDEN FOODS results also concurred to dismantle the perceived role of marine resources and plant foods in the subsistence of Holocene foragers of the Central Mediterranean. We demonstrated that marine resources were regularly consumed by the individual together of Vlakno cave (Croatia) with a variety of plant foods while previous stable isotope data emphasised the terrestrial-based resources contributing to Mesolithic diets in the Mediterranean Basin (DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-26045-9)

The analysis of macro-botanical remains from different Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites in Italy and the Balkans has been continuously appended. By the end of the 3rd period we collected ca. 1800 samples from 18 sites investigated providing enough data to characterize the use of plant foods between the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic in Italy and the Adriatic region of the Balkans.
3D modeling of macro-tool. HIDDEN FOODS reference collection
Experimental fish meat observed in transmitted light. HIDDEN FOODS reference collection
PI of the HIDDEN FOODS project Dr Emanuela Cristiani and her colleague Dr A. Radini