Understanding the Stone Age pantry

The consumption of wild cereals among prehistoric hunters and gatherers appears to be far more ancient than previously thought, according to a University of Calgary archaeologist who has found the oldest example of extensive reliance on cereal and root staples in the diet of early Homo sapiens more than 100,000 years ago.

Julio Mercader…recovered dozens of stone tools from a deep cave in Mozambique showing that wild sorghum, the ancestor of the chief cereal consumed today in sub-Saharan Africa for flours, breads, porridges and alcoholic beverages, was in Homo sapiens’ pantry along with the African wine palm, the false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges and the African “potato.” This is the earliest direct evidence of humans using pre-domesticated cereals anywhere in the world…

This broadens the timeline for the use of grass seeds by our species, and is proof of an expanded and sophisticated diet much earlier than we believed,” Mercader said. “This happened during the Middle Stone Age, a time when the collecting of wild grains has conventionally been perceived as an irrelevant activity and not as important as that of roots, fruits and nuts.”

In 2007, Mercader and colleagues from Mozambique’s University of Eduardo Mondlane excavated a limestone cave near Lake Niassa that was used intermittently by ancient foragers over the course of more than 60,000 years. Deep in this cave, they uncovered dozens of stone tools, animal bones and plant remains indicative of prehistoric dietary practices. The discovery of several thousand starch grains on the excavated plant grinders and scrapers showed that wild sorghum was being brought to the cave and processed systematically.

“It has been hypothesized that starch use represents a critical step in human evolution by improving the quality of the diet in the African savannas and woodlands where the modern human line first evolved. This could be considered one of the earliest examples of this dietary transformation,” Mercader said. “The inclusion of cereals in our diet is considered an important step in human evolution because of the technical complexity and the culinary manipulation that are required to turn grains into staples.”

Mercader said the evidence is on par with grass seed use by hunter-gatherers in many parts of the world during the closing stages of the last Ice Age, approximately 12,000 years ago. In this case, the trend dates back to the beginnings of the Ice Age, some 90,000 years earlier.

Bravo! Another step forward in our understanding of the anthropology of evolution and nutrition.

Yes. Humans cannot live on peanut butter alone. They must have bread.

8 thoughts on “Understanding the Stone Age pantry

  1. gordeecampbell says:

    The postulation while interesting proves little other than the fact that this particular group of humans found it necessary to exploit other food resources. Here the trap springs and that is presumption of facts.

    Simply because here a group of hunters exploiting this plant form does not, nor should not imply that this method was common, widespread, nor common. The impulse for modern humans is that applications of technical methodology are universally applied. Clearly this is not the case.

    These findings are from Madasgar, which is an island. It doesn’t mean that the food gathering practice made it back to the mainland, then or at any time.

    • moss says:

      Dude – you’re doing the implying. Though believing that communications and travel were impossible is almost as silly as creationism.

      The hominid species on Madagascar were the same species on the mainland.

      What’s important about any find like this is that it dates well back from every other find which has been accepted as a general rule. This is an exception. Dramatic, therefore provoking more folks to look around for examples.

      How a lot of paleontology moves ahead. Or back.

      • gordeecampbell says:

        Got that wrong. Its in Mozambique. But the principal is the same. Still, the implications are not there. See you launched and didn’t read completely either.

        Simply because a development occurs in one location. We cannot apply it universally without supporting fieldwork elsewhere.

        Developments of that period do not happen throughout humanity automatically nor quickly. We are talking a timeline of thousands of years.

        The most interesting facet of this is the evolution of the bow and arrow. In North America it was a recent evolution only about 2,000 BPE. Previously the choice of a missile weapon was the Atl-Atl.

        This was a development thousands of years later than in Eurasia/Africa. And from appearances the technical evolution is natural and parallel, not derived or dispersed. I have worked on sites where Black Duck culture supersedes Algonquin culture even though the latter is a superior evolution of the former technoculture.

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