What Did Ancient Egyptians Really Eat?
(ISNS) — Did the ancient Egyptians eat like us? If you’re a vegetarian, tucking in along the Nile thousands of years ago would have felt just like home.
In fact, eating lots of meat is a recent phenomenon. In ancient cultures vegetarianism was much more common, except in nomadic populations. Most sedentary populations ate fruit and vegetables.
Although previous sources found the ancient Egyptians to be pretty much vegetarians, until this new research it wasn’t possible to find out the relative amounts of the different foods they ate. Was their daily bread really daily? Did they binge on eggplants and garlic? Why didn’t someone spear a fish?
A French research team figured out that by looking at the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 B.C. and 600 A.D. you could find out what they ate.
All carbon atoms are taken in by plants from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis. By eating plants, and the animals that had eaten plants, the carbon ends up in our bodies.
The sixth-lightest element on the periodic table – carbon – exists in nature as two stable isotopes: carbon-12 and carbon-13. Isotopes of the same element behave the same in chemical reactions but have slightly different atomic masses, with the carbon-13 being slightly heavier than the carbon-12. Plants are categorized into two groups. The first group, C3, is most common in plants such as garlic, eggplants, pears, lentils and wheat. The second smaller group, C4, comprises foodstuffs like millet and sorghum.
The common C3 plants take in less of the heavier isotope carbon-13, while the C4 plants take in more. By measuring the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 you can distinguish between these two groups. If you eat a lot of C3 plants, the concentration of carbon-13 isotopes in your body will be lower than if your diet consisted mainly of C4 plants.
The mummies that the French researchers studied were the remains of 45 people that had been shipped to two museums in Lyon, France during the 19th century. “We had an approach that was a little different,” explained Alexandra Touzeau, who led the research team at the University of Lyon. “We worked a lot with bones and teeth, while most researchers study hair, collagen and proteins. We also worked on many different periods, with not many individuals for each period, so we could cover a very long time span.”
The researchers reported their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science. They measured carbon-13 to carbon-12 ratios (and also some other isotope ratios) in bone, enamel and hair in these remains, and compared them to similar measurements performed on pigs that had received controlled diets consisting of different proportions of C3 and C4 foodstuffs. As pigs have a similar metabolism to humans, their carbon isotope ratios could be compared to what was found in the mummies.
Hair absorbs a higher rate of animal proteins than bone or teeth, and the isotope ratios in hair of the mummies corresponded to that found in hair of modern European vegetarians, confirming that the ancient Egyptians were also mainly vegetarians. As is the case with many modern people, their diet was wheat- and barley-based. A main conclusion of the research was that C4 cereals, like millet and sorghum, were only a minor part of the diet, less than 10 percent.
But there were a few surprises.
“We found that the diet was constant over time; we had expected changes,” said Touzeau. This showed that the ancient Egyptians adapted well to the environment while the Nile region became increasingly arid between 3500 B.C. and 600 A.D.
To Kate Spence, an archeologist and specialist in ancient Egypt at the U.K.’s University of Cambridge, this could be expected: “Although the area is very arid, they were cultivating crops along the river just by managing irrigation, which is very effective,” she said. When the level of the Nile decreased, farmers just came closer to the river and kept on cultivating in the same way.
The real mystery is the fish. Most people would probably expect the ancient Egyptians living along the Nile to have eaten loads of fish. However, despite considerable cultural evidence, there seems to have been little fish in their diet.
“There is abundant evidence for fishing in Egyptian wall reliefs and models (both spear and net fishing), and fish shows up in offering lists. There is also a lot of archeological evidence for fish consumption from sites such as Gaza and Amama,” said Spence, who added that some texts indicated that a few fish species were not consumed due to religious associations. “All this makes it a bit surprising that the isotopes should suggest that fish was not widely consumed.”
Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics. Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer who has written for Science, Nature, Scientific American, and many others.
Birthplace of Chili Pepper Farming Revealed
Chili peppers reign as the world’s most widely cultivated spice crop; farmers grow them in bulk, and self-described chili-heads breed ever-spicier varieties of the fruit. But before they conquered cuisines around the globe, chili peppers were domesticated in Central and South America.
Now, scientists say they’ve found the hotspot where ancient farmers first cultivated Capsicum annuum, the most common kind of chili pepper.
By drawing on genetic, archaeological, linguistic and ecological evidence, the researchers found that chili farming was born in central-east Mexico. [Myth or Truth? 7 Ancient Health Ideas Explained]
“Identifying the origin of the chili pepper is not just an academic exercise,” senior author of the study Paul Gepts, a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “By tracing back the ancestry of any domesticated plant, we can better understand the genetic evolution of that species and the origin of agriculture — a major step in human evolution in different regions of the world.”
Genetic material from dozens of samples of farm-raised and wild chili peppers seemed to point to northeastern Mexico as the origin of domestication for C. annuum, the researchers found. But the scientists also looked at archaeological evidence for the peppers and ecological predictions of where the plant might have grown in climates of the past. They even looked at which ancient vocabularies included words for chili peppers. When these factors were taken into consideration, the birthplace of chili agriculture shifted farther south, to Mexico’s central-east region.
Christine Hastorf, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies ancient humans’ use of plants, says combining multiple data sets and drawing on four different fields of study greatly enriches the research.
“But the weakest link is the archaeological data by far,” Hastorf, who was not involved in the study, but reviewed it, told Live Science. She noted the authors only have two data points for their map of archaeological evidence of Capsicum annum: one from Romero Cave in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and the other from Coxcatlán Cave, farther south, in the state of Puebla, both estimated to be around 7,000 to 9,000 years old based on contextual evidence. These two samples might not be representative of the origin of chili pepper domestication, but rather chance findings from where archaeologists happened to dig and look for traces of ancient plants, Hastorf said.
Hastorf also thinks it is interesting that the genetic data pointed to northeastern Mexico as the origin for chili farming. She thinks it’s possible the peppers could have easily been transported farther south.
“The thing that’s nice about chili peppers is that they can be eaten raw, they can be dried, they’re light — they’re very transportable,” Hastorf said. “You can imagine how fairly easily the chili pepper could spread.”
Hastorf also pointed out that the new research on Capsicum annuum fills in just one part of the history of domestication: There are four other species of Capsicum that originated in South America and may have been domesticated much earlier than their Mesoamerican cousin. Hastorf is publishing a study on Peru’s Huaca Prieta, an ancient site on the Pacific coast where archaeologists have found traces of all four of South America’s native chili peppers. These plants were likely domesticated elsewhere in the continent — in the Andes and eastern Amazon — but seem to have been brought to Huaca Prieta more than 7,000 years ago.
The results of the new study were published online today (April 21) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.
Evidence suggests Neanderthals boiled food
Neanderthal cooking likely wouldn’t have won any prizes on Top Chef, but a paleontologist suggests that our ancient cousins knew how to cook a mean stew, without even a stone pot to their name.
This female Neanderthal, found in a cave in Gibraltar, may have enjoyed foods heated
in birch bark trays [Credit: Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic]
“I think it’s pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled,” said University of Michigan paleontologist John Speth at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas. “They were around for a long time, and they were very clever with fire.”
Neanderthals were a species of early humans who lived in Europe and the Near East until about 30,000 years ago. Conventional wisdom holds that boiling to soften food or render fat from bones may have been one of the advantages that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, while Neanderthals died out.
But based on evidence from ancient bones, spears, and porridge, Speth believes our Stone Age cousins likely boiled their food. He suggests that Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray by relying on a trick of chemistry: Water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container, even flammable bark or hides.
“You can boil in just about anything as long as you take it off the flame pretty quickly,” Speth says. His presentation included video of water boiling in a paper cup (the water keeps the paper from reaching its ignition temperature) and mention of scenes in Jean Auel’s 1980 novel, Clan of the Cave Bear (later a movie), in which Neanderthals boiled stews in hide pouches.
“This wasn’t an invention of some brainy modern people,” Speth says.
Quest for Fire
While conceding that Neanderthals were handy with wood and fire, paleontologists such as Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson want to let Speth’s idea simmer for a while before they swallow it.
“Whether they went as far as boiling stuff in birch bark containers or in hides is harder to evaluate,” Stiner says. “I am not convinced.”
The use of fire by humans goes back more than 300,000 years in Europe, where evidence is seen in Neanderthal hearths.
But most research has supported the idea that Stone Age boiling, which relied on heating stones in fire pits and dropping them into water, arrived on the scene too late for Neanderthals.
Evidence of cracked “boiling stones” in caves used by early modern humans, for example, goes back only about 26,000 years, too recent for Neanderthals. And pottery for more conventional boiling appears to be only about 20,000 years old.
But who needs boiling stones or pots? Speth suggests that Neanderthals boiled foods in birch bark twisted into trays, a technology that prehistoric people used to boil maple syrup from tree sap.
Archaeologists have demonstrated that Neanderthals relied on birch tar as an adhesive for hafting spear points as long as 200,000 years ago. Making birch tar requires clever cooking in an oxygen-free container, says paleontologist Michael Bisson of Canada’s McGill University.
“I’ve burned myself trying to do it,” Bisson says, adding that Neanderthals were plenty clever when it came to manipulating birch. They likely ignited rolled-up birch bark “cigars” and plunged them into holes to cook the tar in an oxygen-free environment.
If the tar is exposed to oxygen in the air as it cooks, “it explodes,” Bisson adds.
Supporting the boiling idea, Speth said that animal bones found in Neanderthal settings are 98 percent free of scavenger’s gnawing marks, which he says suggests the fat had been cooked off.
And some grains found in the teeth of a Neanderthal buried in Iraq’s Shanidar Cave site appear to have been cooked, according to a 2011 Proceedings of the National Academies of Science report.
“It is speculative, but I think it is pretty likely that they knew how to boil,” Speth says.
In a separate talk at the meeting, University of Michigan paleontologist Andrew White noted recent evidence that Neanderthal mothers weaned their children at an earlier age than human mothers typically do. He said the early transition from milk to food supports the theory that Neanderthals boiled their youngsters’ food to make it more digestible.
The idea that Neanderthals could probably boil their food first came to Speth as he watched an episode of the TV show Survivorman. Stuck in East Africa with only dirty water to drink, host Les Stroud sterilized the muddy liquid by boiling it in a plastic bag.
“Who says you can’t learn anything from TV?” says Speth. “I figured if we could boil water in a plastic bag, then Neanderthals could do it in a birch tray.”
Author: Dan Vergano | Source: National Geographic [April 30, 2014]