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HIDDEN FOODS Report Summary

Project ID: 639286
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HIDDEN FOODS (Plant foods in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies of SE Europe and Italy)

Reporting period: 2015-07-01 to 2016-10-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

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 (such as isotopic and archaeozoological analyses) 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 aims of (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. The integrated approach proposed by HIDDEN FOODS for identifying the role and consequences of plant foods in ancient foragers’ diet, technological change and health status is, to date, unprecedented in the studies of European prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

During the period from 1st of July 2015 and the 30th of October 2016 the project work has been performed following what described in the Annex 1. The PI has focused on: (a) collecting samples from archaeological artefacts and human remains; (b) implementing experimental reference collection; (c) carrying out systematic flotation activity; (d) analysing dental calculus; and (e) collecting samples for AMS dating.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL MATERIAL SAMPLING. After a preliminary survey of the existing artefactual, palaeobotanical and human osteological evidence in scientific literature and through visits to various museums/ archaeological institutions (e.g. Museum of Belgrade in Serbia, Niksic in Montenegro, etc.), the PI has started sampling archaeological stone tools and human tartar for laboratory analyses. Tartar has been sampled from Palaeolithic individuals of San Teodoro, Romito and from Mesolithic individuals of Grotta d’Oriente and Mondeval de Sora in Italy, Vlasac/Padina, Lepenski Vir/Houducka Vodenica in the Danube Gorges of Serbia, Vlakno cave in Croatia. Stone tools have been sampled for starch analysis from the site of Grotta Fumane in Italy, Vlasac, Lepenski Vir and Padina in Serbia and Vlakno cave in Croatia.

CONSTRUCTION OF REFERENCE COLLECTION OF PLANTS. The PI has worked on the experimental reference collection of modern edible plants and starches to be used as reference for the analysis of starch preserved in ground stones and tartar. This part of the work has been carried out in collaboration with Dr V. Vukojičić at the Botanical Garden of Belgrade.

SYSTEMATIC FLOTATION ACTIVITY. Systematic flotation work has been conducted at different archaeological sites in Croatia (Vlakno cave), Italia (Grotta del Cavallo and Riparo Romito) and Montenegro (Vrbička cave). For this activity the PI has collaborated with the University of Florence (Prof. Martini and Dr Lo Vetro), University of Zadar (Dr Vujević) and Cardiff University (Dr D. Borić). Macro-botanical remains collected during the fieldwork has been stored and will be made available to RA1 for the analysis.

ANALYSIS OF DENTAL CALCULUS. The PI has started the analysis of starch and other micro-fossils preserved in human dental calculus of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic individuals from Italy, Croatia and Serbia (more than 50 samples have been collected so far). Tartar sampled from Mesolithic individual of various sites in the Danube Gorges of Serbia have already been analysed and the results published in peer-review journals or are in the process of being published. Tartar samples collected from Mesolithic burials in Croatia has been analysed and the results are in the process to be published. Tartar sampled from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic individuals of Italy are currently under study.

AMS DATING. Human bone samples and seeds have been collected and submitted for AMS dating. The first dates have already been obtained for Vrbička cave in Montenegro and for the Mesolithic burial of Vlakno Cave and will be used for publications.

WEBSITE. A project website was designed and activated

HIDDEN FOODS project was suspended for 4 months during the PI’s maternity leave.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

In the period from the 1st of July 2014 to the 30th of October 2016 the project work has focused on the recovery and analysis of plant macro and micro-fossils entrapped in ground stones, sediments, and human dental calculus as well as in the implementation of the experimental reference of modern plant to be used for the interpretation of archaeological plant micro-fossils.
The analysis of micro-fossils in archaeological artefacts and in the sediments is still on-going and will be developed by the RA1 and RA3 at the end of the phase 2 of the project.
The study of the sample of dental calculus from Mesolithic individuals from the Danube Gorges has already been concluded and important results achieved. Such results, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are expected to have an impact on: (a) the state of the art of tartar analysis and, namely, the capacity of differentiating ancient wild and domestic starch granules in tartar; (b) our understanding of the variety of plant species consumed as food by Holocene foragers in the Danube Gorges; (c) our idea of the Neolithization in Europe. In particular, diversely from what is commonly accepted HIDDEN FOODS results indicate that already at ca. 6600 BC local forgers of the central Balkans consumed ‘domesticated’ Cerealia. The data challenge the established view of the Neolithization in Europe as they clearly indicate that domesticated plants were introduced to the Balkans independently from the rest of Neolithic novelties (e.g. domesticated animals and artefacts), which accompanied the arrival of farming communities in this region. Social networks between local foragers and first Neolithic communities likely eased the introduction of domesticated plants in the Mesolithic groups of the Balkan hinterland.
Nowadays, cereals represent the most staple plant foods in our diet. HIDDEN FOODS results are hence unique as they suggest how a familiarity with domestic Cerealia grasses developed from ca. 6600 BC, if not earlier, might have eased the later quick adoption of agricultural practices in the region.
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