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Dental plaque sheds new light on diet of Mesolithic foragers in the Balkans

Posted on 6 September 2016

Archaeologists from the Universities of York and Cambridge have revealed the first direct evidence that Mesolithic foragers from the Balkans consumed domestic cereals almost half a millennium earlier than previously thought.

Close-up of human remains from Vlasac, Serbia (credit: Dušan Bori)Close-up of human remains from Vlasac, Serbia (credit: DuĊĦan Bori)

Led by Dr Emanuela Cristiani from The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, a team of researchers studied dental calculus from Late Mesolithic individuals from the site of Vlasac in the Danube Gorges of the central Balkans.

The team used polarised microscopy to study micro-fossils trapped in the dental calculus (ancient calcified dental plaque) of 9 individuals dated to the Late Mesolithic (c. 6600-6450 BC) and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition phase (c. 6200-5900 BC).

They found that starch granules preserved in the dental calculus were consistent with domestic species such as wheat (Triticum monococcum, Triticum dicoccum) and barley (Hordeum distichon), which were also the main crops found among Early Neolithic communities of southeast Europe.

Domestic species were consumed together with other wild species of the Aveneae tribe (oats), Fabaeae tribe (peas and beans) and grasses of the Paniceae tribe.

These preserved starch granules provide direct evidence that Neolithic domestic cereals had already reached inland foragers deep in the Balkan hinterland by c. 6600 BC – challenging the hitherto held notion of the "Neolithic package".

Archaeologists use the concept of "Neolithic package" to refer to the group of elements that appear in the Early Neolithic settlements of Southeast Europe: pottery, domesticates and cultigens, polished axes, ground stones and timber houses.

Anita Radini, from York’s Department of Archaeology, said: "In the central Balkans, foragers' familiarity with domestic Cerealia grasses from c. 6500 BC, if not earlier, might have eased the later quick adoption of agricultural practices."

Dr Cristiani said: "The deposition of mineralised plaque ends with the death of the individual, therefore, dental calculus has sealed unique human biographic information about Mesolithic dietary preferences and lifestyle. What we happened to discover has a tremendous significance as it challenges the established view of the Neolithization in Europe.”

"Microfossils trapped in dental calculus are direct evidence that plant foods were an important source of energy within the Mesolithic forager diet. More significantly though, they reveal that domesticated plants were introduced to the Balkans independently from the rest of Neolithic novelties such as domesticated animals and artefacts, which accompanied the arrival of farming communities in the region.”

"Most of the starch granules that we identified in the Late Mesolithic calculus of the central Balkans are consistent with plants that became key staple domestic foods with the start of the Neolithic in this region.”

This region of the central Balkans has yielded unprecedented data for other areas with a known Mesolithic forager presence in Europe. Dental tartar samples were also taken from three Early Neolithic (c. 5900-5700 BC) female burials from the site of Lepenski Vir, located around 3 km upstream from Vlasac.

Further information:

  • Findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • The remains from Vlasac were recovered during excavations from 2006 to 2009 by Dušan Bori, Cardiff University.
  • For more information about The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge, visit: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/
  • For further information about the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, visit: https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/

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