Ancient cooking pots reveal gradual transition to agriculture

Posted on 24 October 2011

Humans may have undergone a gradual rather than an abrupt transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to farming, according to a new study of ancient pottery.

Researchers at the University of York and the University of Bradford analysed cooking residues preserved in 133 ceramic vessels from the Western Baltic regions of Northern Europe to establish whether these residues were from terrestrial, marine or freshwater organisms.

This research provides clear evidence people across the Western Baltic continued to exploit marine and freshwater resources despite the arrival of domesticated animals and plants

Dr Oliver Craig

The research led by Oliver Craig (York) and Carl Heron (Bradford) included an international team of archaeologists from The Heritage Agency of Denmark, The National Museum of Denmark, Moesgård Museum (Denmark), Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Kiel (Germany) and the Archäologisches Landesmuseum, Schleswig (Germany).

The project team studied ceramic pots from 15 sites dating to around 4,000 BC– the time when the first evidence of domesticated animals and plants was found in the region. The research, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is published online in the latest edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research team found that fish and other aquatic resources continued to be exploited after the advent of farming and domestication, with pots from coastal locations containing residues enriched in a form of carbon found in marine organisms.

Around one-fifth of coastal pots contained other biochemical traces of aquatic organisms, including fats and oils absent in terrestrial animals and plants. At inland sites, 28 percent of pots contained residues from aquatic organisms, which appeared to be from freshwater fish.

Lead author Dr Oliver Craig, of the Department of Archaeology at York, said: “This research provides clear evidence people across the Western Baltic continued to exploit marine and freshwater resources despite the arrival of domesticated animals and plants. Although farming was introduced rapidly across this region, it may not have caused such a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life as we previously thought.”

Carl Heron, Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, said: “Our data set represents the first large scale study combining a wide range of molecular evidence and single-compound isotope data to discriminate terrestrial, marine and freshwater resources processed in archaeological ceramics and it provides a template for future investigations into how people used pots in the past.”

Notes to editors:

  • The article “Ancient lipids reveal continuity in culinary practices across the transition to agriculture in Northern Europe” is published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
  • More about the Department of Archaeology at the University of York at www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/
  • More about Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford www.brad.ac.uk/archenvi/ or contact the University of Bradford’s Press Office on 01274 233089/236844 (07879 437996 out of hours) at press@bradford.ac.uk.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £100 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes hundreds of research awards ranging from individual fellowships to major collaborative projects as well as over 1,100 studentship awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153

Keep up to date

 Subscribe to news feeds

 Follow us on Twitter