The Stone Age Food Pyramid Included Flour Made From Wild Grains

By Andrew Moseman | October 18, 2010 6:00 pm

MortarPestleHumans didn’t begin major agriculture until about 10,000 years ago. But 20,000 years  before that they were grinding their own flour, a new study (in press) suggests, adding more proof that our forebears were eating the beginnings of a more balanced diet while still roving as hunter-gatherers.

Anna Revedin’s team says in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they found traces evidence of flour still stuck in 30,000-year-old stones the team found in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The flour, likely suitable for making flatbread or cakes, didn’t just give stone age people some dinnertime variety. Because it could be stored in dried form, flour would have given them greater independence from environmental and seasonal circumstance. [Wired.com]

The stones themselves appear to have been shaped for grinding, like an archaic mortar and pestle.

They found tiny remnants of starch on the grinding tools and in some cases were able identify the plants they came from. In Italy, these included the starch-rich rhizomes from Typha angustifolia, or narrow leaf cat tail, Typha latifolia, broad leaf cattail, as well as Brachypodium, grasses that have caryopsis, or grains, and are easy to grind and grow well in the area. Another grain was found that appears to be from Sparganium, or bur reed. [USA Today]

Because these people lived long before agriculture, they would have relied on the wild varieties of these species. No problem, says team member Laura Longo—those plants would have been widely distributed across Europe in those days. And if you cook them, the energy content is actually quite good, Longo says.

Scratched-up animal bones showing where early humans cut off the meat are much easier to find than evidence for omnivorousness. Through finds like this one, though, the idea of strictly meat-eating group living back then has been crumbling.

Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, expects that flour-making dates back even further than 30,000 years. “This is not isolated to a small group of people. It’s a regular part of subsistence for humans,” he says. After all, humans, ancient or modern, just aren’t equipped to live on a diet of meat alone. “If you get that much meat in your diet not balanced out with other nutrients, you get protein poisoning,” says Hardy. [Nature]

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • bigjohn756

    Hey, all they wanted was to bread their steaks and thicken their gravy.

  • megan

    I thought the whole term Hunter – GATHERER meant that instead of permanent intentional planting of crops, local vegetation varieties were GATHERED just like the meat was hunted.

    It would be that weather and plant cycles are probably more random and iffy than being able to hunt the many forms of meat in a region so the diet was higher in fats and meat, fibrous green vegetation versus high carbo grains and starchy tubers. Once the women learned(females tend the hearth and prep food more than human males) to replant the seeds and saw that the plantings would regrow in the same location, I’m for sure planned crops in a static location(modern farming) started happening.

    I just find the subtle need to push vegetarianism as the core(real=pure=true) diet of homo sapiens a contrarian fad trying to denounce previous findings of carnivorous/scavenger high protein diets as what helped tick off the growth in higher brain tissue development in simian groups. Apes turning to pure vegetarian diets are a regressive evolutionary turn based on the high availability of vegetable matter for energy in forested/tree environments that orangutans and gorillas live in. Chimps, baboons and early humanoid species lived in arid to lowland grassy/forest areas and shores, where access to dense caloried diet sources of meat and seafood were available through scavenging or hunting. Thus omnivorous/carnivorous like diets were the norm.

    IMHO, Massive despoiling of the countryside for a pure plant/vegetarian diet is just as bad as thousand acres of cattle belching and pooping on deforested acres. Monoculture food systems to feed an endless growth population demand will never be sustainable or environmentally sound.

  • Bas

    Leave it up to someone to somehow misconstrue the entire article as an argument for vegetarianism…

  • James

    Haha isn’t that the point of threads?! You’d sure think so from reading the majority of the articles in here

  • Georg

    “Flour” is a misleading word, as long as we think of modern flour.
    I think they crunched the grains, getting something like oat meal
    or semolina.
    Did they have pots, to cook something like polenta?
    Georg

  • Phoebe

    This is a humorous thought, not meant to denigrate the excellent research being done by these scientists.
    Here’s a grant idea, if we are not already there: Maybe the research is being funded by large grain growing agribusiness interests. This might dilute the theory of the “Paleo Diet” folks who believe that our high carb/grain diet is bad for us and was not the diet of early humans. Paleo Diet enthusiasts theorize that early humans ate only meat/seafood, vegetables and fruit.
    The way we eat refined grains and refined sugars now really is harmful. Whole grains seem to be better, and that is no doubt what was done 30,000 years ago.

  • scott

    By personal choice, I have not knowlingly consumed grain products for about 10 years, as well as processed sugary things and am often lectured by people how humans can’t survive without grains and must eat them (usually they are slightly overweight, puffy people who complain of various ailments). I often find hostility and rolled eyes when declining a piece of bread, cake, cookie, switching the pasta for a grilled veg, etc…simple for me, I just feel much better eating meat, nuts, fruits, fresh cheeses and yogurts, salads, vegetables and I have very little trouble eating out – except at some of the chains scattered about the US like Mimi’s Cafe, Applebee’s, fast foods, etc. Driving through on the I-40 I stopped at Cracker Barrel in Kingman, AZ where I ordered grilled catfish with green beans…anyway, the place was packed and (not exhagerating), everyone was overweight, if not obese in there, even the kids and it was just a carbohydrate orgy, a frenzy of biscuits and syrup, mashed potatoes, pancakes, fried chicken, corn muffins and fried apples floating in melted ice cream….then when you leave, there is the Old Country Store selling treats filled with corn syrups, and PHO’s.
    I had a biochem prof in college who denounced eating grains, I also met a few while working in various labs around the bay area who leaned anti grain, always trim and healthy looking and I have followed their advice and from what I see in society, I think they are right. I also took their advice on many of the oils consumed that should be avoided. Anyway, for the most part, those who lash out on me for my personal choice are usually a little chunky, if not pushing fat, and they don’t hibernate, so I think they are just addicted to the brain chemistry resulting from eating too many carbohydrates. The worst are vegetarians, I don’t even know any…They just attack and want to cram their bran muffins, semolina pasta and tofu down my throat, (there are a lot of fat ones) and I never say a thing to them, or anyone about how they should eat. I just avoid them and obese people in general, oftens the ones to lecture me about what I should eat.

  • Bigby

    Scott, I agree with you and have always felt better when I avoid grains. My problem is that I lack your will power. I think, in general grains are bad, especially processed white flour. Out paleolithic ancestors would have had no problem with it because, no matter how plentiful they seem, when you have to grind your own — well, I doubt they were breakfasting on bagels and muffins. Too, the calorie burn involved with the gathering and processing those grains probably ameliorates the negative impacts of grain based carbs.

  • scott

    Bigby…I know, I know…Passing up a hot fresh chocolate croissant can be hard sometimes, but I know how I feel when I eat something like that, or a bag of chips and the quick gratification is not worth the bloated, lethargic state I end up in. I know many people who have given up/limited grains and admit to feeling much better, but go back to them. They have interesting affects on psychology and brain chemistry. Cheap and easy too. I do not deny they are delicious – and I am not advocating low carb per say, and pushing bacon, I eat lots of fruits and sweet potatoes, pumpkin, etc. It just works for me and I believe one side over the other of a hot controversy. I know several MD’s and have many friends in the sciences and its 50/50 on their view on grains, oils, etc…one MD thinks coconut oil is fine, sunflower oil poison, and grains bad, another thinks the opposite and both can make great arguments to defend their belief. But one looks much better than the other….

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