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What did our ancestors eat?

Archaeological studies this year unearthed a 2000-year-old food stall in Pompeii and revealed that our African ancestors survived on shellfish and the turmeric trade can be traced to the Bronze Age

Ancient Greek Fresco in Paestum, Italy, called the
Ancient Greek Fresco in Paestum, Italy, called the "Tomb of the Diver" featuring men during a banquet. (Image courtesy: istockphoto)

The weekend was abuzz with the news of a spectacular find by archaeologists in Rome’s Pompeii region. Around 79 AD, a volcanic eruption had caused widespread devastation when all of Pompeii was buried under ash. Last week, Reuters reported that a food and drinks stall, considered to be 2,000 years old, was excavated by archaeologists. Known as a termopolium, Latin for hot drinks counter, it has vibrant frescoes depicting fowl and ducks, which are believed to be the foods served there. Articles such as a decorated bronze drinking bowl called patera, ceramic jars for cooking stews and soups, wine flasks and amphora have been excavated too. Food traces in the utensils indicate dishes with snails, fish, pork and beef, signifying a meat-rich diet.

Although the discovery of the well-preserved food stall at Pompeii made headlines, there were several other intriguing food-related archaeological findings in 2020.

Turmeric and trade

Now, there is food-related evidence to prove that trade existed between Egypt and South-East Asia since the Bronze Age. In December, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, found that people in the Mediterranean consumed sesame, soybean, banana, and turmeric. At that time, these foods were mostly found in South-East Asia. The scientists examined the teeth of human remains in the Mediterranean to find protein traces of these foods. They believe these finding have made them "rethink the complexity and intensity of Indo-Mediterranean trade during the Bronze Age as well as the degree of globalization in early Eastern Mediterranean cuisine".

Oyster feast for tourists

In the south-eastern region of the United States several ceremonial sites thrived more than a thousand years ago. One such place is Robert Islands, a few miles from Tampa Bay in Florida. In a research paper published by the Department of Anthropology in the University of Florida in April, archaeologists found that oysters were used in ceremonial feasts and were served to tourists who visited, most likely, for religious reasons. The oysters, found in kitchen waste of ancient residents, have been linked to lower sea levels and cool dry climates. The ceremonial site at Roberts Island was vacated around 1050 AD. A small group of residents, maintained shell mounds and a stepped pyramid and welcomed a steady stream of visitors who feasted on oysters.

Shellfish sustained ancient migrations

Our ancestors who migrated from Africa to the Arabian continent about 5,000 years ago might have survived on a diet of shellfish. Archaeologists from the University of York published a paper titled "Shellfish resilience to prehistoric human consumption in the southern Red Sea", in Quaternary International in May 2020, which indicated crustaceans provided sustenance during periods of low rainfall when other foods were scarce. They studied the submerged fossil reefs in the shoreline of the Red Sea which were are believed to be prehistoric migratory routes from Africa to Arabia. Dr Niklas Hausmann, associate researcher at the department of archaeology at the University of York, said: “The availability of food resources plays an important role in understanding the feasibility of past human migrations.”

Beetles and epidemics

This year has been filled with news about restrictions of food imports and exports as a measure to stop the spread of covid-19. In Japan, there is evidence to prove that the transportation of food caused the spread of pests almost 10,000 years ago. Professor Hiroki Obata of Kumamoto University, who has been studying impressions of maize weevils on pottery from the late Jomon period (around 3,600 years ago), found that they were used to carry maize and chestnuts. It is believed that the Jomons established the earliest prehistoric culture in Japan. The oldest pottery in the world can be traced to the early Jomon period. Transporting food in terracotta utensils was common practice and they were often infested with weevils. Professor Obata concluded: "The fact that food pests such as weevils existed even in the Jomon period, and that their spread was due to sedentary lifestyles and the transportation and trade of food is similar to what happens in modern society. Modern epidemics and disasters spread not only through natural forces, but also by the gathering of people and the movement of goods. Thus, there are lessons to be learned from pottery from thousands of years ago."

(With inputs from Reuters)

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