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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - HIDDEN FOODS (Plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies of SE Europe and Italy)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-12-31

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 seed remains have been recovered at many archaeological sites of Europe and across the world.

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

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.
An analytical and experimental framework for interpreting plant remains based on the analysis of use-wear traces on ground stones, archaeological plant micro-remains, and macro-botanical remains were built. By the end of the project, the HIDDEN FOODS experimental collection comprises more than 150 stone replicas used in various activities. As a part of the methodological implementation, the research team created a database for documenting experimental use-wear traces and morphometric details of plant microstructures. Experimental results were published (10.1007/s12520-019-00824-5.B; https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-020-09488-1).
HIDDEN FOODS also produced a reference collection of modern macro plants with more than 300 wild and domestic species (10.1073/pnas.1603477113; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-26045-9; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82401-2). Some of the methodological advances developed within HIDDEN FOODS were also applied to other categories of artifacts (e.g. hooks, flaked stone tools) (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0230972; https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257710).

By integrating dental calculus and macro-botanical analysis we revealed oats and wild cereals were consumed ca. 8000 years ago at one important Mesolithic site in Italy: Mondeval de Sora. Also in central and southern Italy the consumption of grass grains can be dated back to ca. 15000 years ago (DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-82401-2; https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.24128). The results of the HIDDEN FOODS project obtained on dental calculus and stone tools suggest wild grasses of the Gramineae family were also consumed during the Mesolithic in the Adriatic region and the central Balkans (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-26045-9 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.72976; https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.2412).
Masticatory macro-wear and carbohydrate-related pathologies in human teeth from Italian sites revealed Palaeolithic and Mesolithic dietary preferences as different bioarchaeological methods are necessary for reconstructing the role of plant foods in ancient diet (https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.2412; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82401-2).

By analyzing functional modifications and residues on stone tools, the HIDDEN FOODS team was able to identify specific technological innovations that were introduced for processing plant foods in the Balkans and Italy during the Mesolithic. However, non-knapped stone tools were also used in bone processing (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2021.101368;DOI: 10.7554/eLife.72976;https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102928).

One of the main results of the HIDDEN FOODS project comes from the analysis of ancient oral microbiome from Paleolithic and Mesolithic individuals from Italy and the Balkans. By comparing the oral microbiome of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic foragers and the first groups of farmers who arrived from the Near East during the Neolithic period, it was possible to outline the stages that marked the transition agriculture in Southern Europe. The genetic variability and phylogeography of a bacterial species that inhabit the oral cavity (the Anaerolineaceae bacterium oral taxon 439) allowed us to reconstruct the migratory flow of the first farmers around 8,500 years ago, moved from the Near East to the Balkans and Italy (DOI:10.1073/pnas.2102116118)
Before the HIDDEN FOODS project, knowledge about the use of plants in hunter-gatherer societies of southern Europe was quite elusive. HIDDEN FOODS provided the unambiguous evidence for the consumption and processing of wild cereal-type grains among other types of edible plants by ancient hunter-gatherers in Italy and the Balkans through the analysis of human dental calculus, macro-botanical remains, and stone technology from key Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites.

HIDDEN FOODS revealed that familiarity with various species of wild grains date back to at least 15000 years ago in Italy and ca. 11500 years ago in the central Balkans. In the Danube Gorges area of the central Balkans, it seems that the use of specific wild grains was passed over generations up to the first contacts of these foragers with Neolithic farming groups. Our evidence from Serbia suggests that some exchange between Late Mesolithic foragers and first Neolithic groups in the southern Balkans might have allowed for the introduction of the domesticated cereals in this area 8500 years. Such results challenge the established view of the Neolithization in Europe based on which domestic grains were introduced to the Balkans around ∼8200 calibrated years ago as a part of a “package” that also included domesticated animals and toolkits, which accompanied the arrival of Neolithic communities. We infer that Neolithic domesticated plants were transmitted independently from the rest of Neolithic novelties from 8600 years ago.

The analysis of ancient DNA preserved in the dental calculus of individuals from archaeological sites in Italy and the Balkans, dating back over 15000 years, has made it possible to reconstruct the evolution of the oral flora of the ancient foragers and the first groups of farmers who arrived from the Near East during the Neolithic period, thus outlining the stages that marked the transition to agriculture in Southern Europe. The genetic variability and phylogeography of a bacterial species that inhabit the oral cavity, the Anaerolineaceae bacterium oral taxon 439, allowed to reconstruct the migratory flow of the first farmers who, around 8,500 years ago, moved from the Near East to the Balkans and Italy.

Plant micro-remains in the dental calculus of Paleolithic individuals the consume different plant resources during the Late Glacial (i.e. from ca. 15000 years ago) including wild cereals, seeds, forgotten millets and forest fruits. Such data are supported by micro-dental wear and macro-plant remains.
Starch granules from experimental wheat grinding
3D modeling of macro-tool. HIDDEN FOODS reference collection
HIDDEN FOODS botanical reference collection
PI of the HIDDEN FOODS project Dr Emanuela Cristiani and her colleague Dr A. Radini
PI of the HIDDEN FOODS project Dr Emanuela Cristiani sampling ground stones from the central Balkans
Starch granules in dental calculus matrix observed at transmitted light
Human teeth from the site of Vlasac in the central Balkans