Food Preparation Methods used in the Neolithic Period


Essay, 2008
25 Pages


About 10.000 years go the Neolithic revolution was the starting point of both the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants in the Near East. Due to climatic changes at the beginning of the Holocene and probably distinctively connected to a variation of food preparation throughout several parts of the earth including Europe, North America and Asia, the introduction of agriculture led to a rapidly increased population, a forthcoming of health and, therefore, a longer life expectancy. For plenty of years, however, this intention was suggested by medical, anthropological as well as evolutionary and social-historical examines. Since the last few decades, the currently regarded conclusions of researchers have been significantly overthrown, as the utilization of computer-assisted technology has been improved and observations dealing with stable isotopic issues rather than archaeological artefacts or morphological alterations have been enlarged. Consequently, new explorations allow further research and more detailed information regarding the evolutionary development of human beings. This paper will firstly elucidate the main fields of evidence to give an insight into the evolutionary process especially when stressing the dietary progress - meaning morphological changes, evidence given by archaeological findings, and bone chemistry. Additionally, the submitted text will point out the transformations of food preparation between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods. Thirdly, the discussion of advantages and disadvantages of Neolithic food grounding will be investigated to give a brief overview permitting an understanding of the currently heavy discussions between scholars pressuring the post-traditional issue of the Neolithic revolution. The aspects ought to be underscored by several case studies. As a result it will be illustrated, that the obviously contrary groups of intentions are based on an equal question of scholarship: how useful are modern technologies reflecting on the evolutionary process and do they actually allow more detailed observations to overcome the hiatus of data due to the development of human beings?

Doing research on dietary habits and changes of early Homo and to obtain comparable data there are three types of scientific examinations being mostly utilized. The traditional kind of observation is represented by the exploitation of archaeological material to identify variations between several periods of hominid evolution.1 Although a huge amount of evidence could be provided by archaeological inspections, the actually useful information is rare. Apart from findings being particularly artefacts like stone tools, potteries as well as animal and hominid bones (if they were available), organic remains are unlikely to survive the long times since the early stages of hominid evolution.2 Therefore, archaeological research does not necessarily answer specific questions of evolutionary transformations. Since the observation of findings has been supported by medical techniques - i.e. dental microwear - the scholarly conclusions have raised a better guarantee of reliability.3 Hence, another problem lingers: the availability of animals’ and humans’ remains dated from the early periods of evolution.

Various biological and anthropological factors limit the results of archaeological studies, either. Despite of being defined as humans’ first tools, the findings of Oldowan in Africa dated from c. 2.5 - 1.7 million years ago4 cannot be directly linked to Homo.5 The simple choppers and scrapers may allow conclusions pointing out the beginning of changes of food preparation concerning meat-eating6, but such evidence are likely to be highly speculative. Otherwise, the problem of interpreting archaeological findings occurs due to the identification of their actual utilization. Especially experimental archaeology offers these probably numerous fields of tools’ usage in prehistoric terms.7

In short, the scientific research based on archaeological evidence is still one of the main sources of studying early hominids’ stages regarding dietary habits. Despite of the mentioned hiatus of certain data, archaeology allows an indirect insight into the evolutionary progress of early Homo. As a result, the utilization of archaeological conclusions has been connected to other issues of scholarship like dental microwear8 or stable isotopic evidence.9 Consequently, the results of such investigations have become more evident due to the summary of obtainable information.

Plenty of investigations suggest conclusions based on comparisons between early hominids and currently living primates.10 Such studies are mostly correlated to the utilization of medical material by observing i.e. anatomical or dental characteristics, either. Despite of the allowance of more certain terminations, several critical authors of the morphological type of research are pointing out the limitations due to the actual representation of early hominids’ dietary habits.11 Otherwise, the supporters of examinations dealing with comparisons between fossilized remains and currently living primates have faced an ambivalence of their own research: Aiello/Wheeler published the expensive-tissue hypothesis anno 1995.12 They emphasize that humans’ brain size is much larger than expected and, therefore, is dependent of an increase of energy. The higher energetic costs have to be drawn by the consumption of high-energy animal meat despite of the food preparation based on plants, Aiello/Wheeler claim. Additionally, the enlargement of meat-eating allows the reduction of the size of other expensive tissues like the gut due to the less activity of the intestinal tract.

Cordain/Watkins/Mann, however, suggest another observation based on a very similar issue13: they point out that the consumption of both docsahexaenoic and arachidonic - being important fatty acids of animal protein - have influenced the increase of human brain size. Consequently, Cordain/Watkins/Mann come to the same conclusion as Aiello/Wheeler, although suggesting a different way of investigation. This circumstance is even more problematic by interpreting the critics of Milton14, as she elucidates the consumption of high- quality plants rather than meat-eating to be responsible for an enlargement of the brain size. Milton’s observations are also based on the comparison of currently living primates and the dietary habits of the earliest hominids. “This alternative hypothesis highlights the inadequacy of the use of analogy with living primates as a means to understand hominid subsistence, as the same lines of evidence can be used to support two opposing views”, as Richards logically summarizes.15 For that reason the mentioned problems of morphological research lead to the conclusion naming this type of investigation as being an indirect method to explain changes in Homo’s dietary habits.

As chemical analysis of currently obtainable tissues - meaning bone collagen and tooth enamel especially - allow the investigation of stable isotopes like carbon and nitrogen, more detailed information can be directly studied.16 By the utilization of the ratio of stable carbon (13 C/12 C and15 N/14 N) defining δ13 C and δ15 N as values in bone collagen, scientifics are able to elucidate the ecosystem of early hominids and other animals living in the investigated period.17 Because of being a sign of values of dietary protein (δ13 C and δ15 N), it is also possible to differentiate between long-term nutritional habits dated on circa ten years as well as marine and terrestrial protein.18 Furthermore stable isotopes are evident for the existence of C3 and C4 plants possibly being located in the observed area. If C3 and C4 plants could be suggested, they were an indication of their consumption and the trophic level of dietary protein concerning the photosynthetic process.19 As a result studies based on the experimental measurement of δ13 C and δ15 N values make it likely to learn more about dietary patterns of early animals and Homo.20 However it is important to notice that such examinations are limited to one specific location regarding climatic differences as well as variations of available food. Therefore, there have been published numerous studies illustrating the transformations of prehistoric nutritional habits of the earliest hominids.21 The advantage of analyzing stable isotope values is distinctively linked to the problems of archaeological and morphological research. Collagen in bones could be conserved very well, as there could be observed remains of collagen being up to 100.000 years old.22 Consequently a wide period of hominid evolution can be regarded by the utilization of stable isotope analysis.

It has become common to connect the advantages of the three mentioned types of research to receive more detailed as well as more abstract information stressing Homo’s evolutionary progress - especially throughout the earliest prehistoric periods of humankind.23 However there are still plenty of questions remaining24 - particularly stressing anatomical and nutritional changes, and the possibility of a correlation between these transformations.25

Ambrose, S. H.; Katzenburg, M. A. (eds.): Biogeochemical Approaches to Paleaodietary Analysis. New York 2000, pp. 243-259, pp. 244-246.


1 Two early studies elucidating the linkage between archaeology and medical - especially dental - research see Keith, A.; Knowles, F. H. S.: A description of teeth of Palaeolithic man from Jersey. Journal of Current Physiology 46 (Yearbook 1911-1912), pp. 12-27. See also Péquart, M.; Péquart, S. J.: La nécropole mésolithique de l’ile d’Hoëdic, Morbihan. L ’ Anthropologie 44 (1934), pp. 1-20.

2 See Richards, M. P.: A brief review of the archaeological evidence for Palaeolithic and Neolithic subsistence. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56 (2002), pp. 1270-1278, p. 1272. In the following cit. as Richards 2002. More detailed see Smith, B. H.: Patterns of molar wear in hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 63 (1984), pp. 39-56, pp. 40-43.

3 See esp. Larsen, C. S.; Shavit, R.; Griffin, M. C.: Dental caries evidence for dietary change. An archaeological context. In: Kelly, M. A.; Larsen, C. S. (eds.): Advances in Dental Anthropology. New York 1991, pp. 179-202. In the following cit. as Larsen 1991. See also Mahoney, P.: Dental microwear from Natufian hunter-gatherers and early Neolithic farmers. Comparisons within and between samples. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130 (2006), pp. 308-319. Being an example of the modern utilization of dental investigations due to dietary changes by transforming the main parts of food preparation see esp. Teaford, M. F.; Lytle, J. D.: Brief communication. Diet-induced changes in rates of human tooth microwear - a case study involving stone- ground maize. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 100 (1996), pp. 143-147. In the following cit. as Teaford 1996.

4 See Leonard, W. R.; Robertson, M. L.; Snodgrass, J. J.: Effects of Brain Evolution on Human Nutrition and Metabolism. Annual Review of Nutrition 27 (2007), pp. 311-327, p. 317.

5 See Richards 2002, p. 1272.

6 See Rose, L.; Marshall, F.: Meat eating, hominid sociality, and home bases revisited. Journal of Current Anthropology 37 (1991), pp. 307-338, pp. 329-331. To elucidate the periods of different nutritional patterns throughout the development of humankind see esp. Table 1: “Evolutionary periods due to human diets”.

7 See in brief Milton, K.: Hunter-gatherer diets. A different perspective? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71 (2000), pp. 665-667. In the following cit. as Milton 2000.

8 See esp. Molleson, T.; Jones, K.: Dental evidence for dietary change at Abu Hureyra. Journal of Archaeological Science 18 (1991), pp. 525-539. In the following cit. as Molleson 1991. See also Molleson, T.; Jones, K; Jones, S.: Dietary change and the effects of food preparation on microwear patterns in the late Neolithic of Abu-Hureyra, Northern Syria. Journal of Human Evolution 24 (1993), pp. 455-468. In the following cit. as Molleson 1993. See furthermore Lukacs, J. R.: Dental paleopathology and agricultural intensification in South Asia. New evidence from Bronze Age Harappa. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 87 (1992), pp. 133-150.

9 See Schoeninger, M.: Stable isotope studies in human evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 4 (1995), pp. 83- 98. See esp. Lucas, P.; Peters, C. R.; Arrandale, S. R.: Seed-breaking forces exerted by orang-utans with their teeth in captivity and a new technique for estimating forces produced in the wild. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94 (1994), pp. 365-378. See also Lubell, D.; Jackes, M.; Schwarcz, H.; Knyf, M.; Meiklejohn, C.: The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Portugal. Isotopic and dental evidence of diet. Journal of Archaeological Science 21 (1994), pp. 201-216.

10 See i.e. Chivers, D. J.; Hladik, C. M.: Morphology of the gastrointestinal tract in Primates. Comparisons with other mammals in relation to diet. Journal of Morphology 166 (1980), pp. 337-386. In the following cit. as Chivers 1980. See also Chivers, D. J.; Hladik, C. M.: Diet and gut morphology in primates. In: Chivers, D. J.; Wood, B. A.; Bilsborough, A. (eds.): Food acquisition and processing in primates. New York 1984, pp. 213-230. In the following cit. as Chivers 1984. See furthermore Conklin-Brittain, N. L.; Wrangham, R. W.; Smith C. C.: A Two-Stage Model of Increased Dietary Quality in Early Hominid Evolution: The Role of Fiber. In: Ungar, P. S.; Teaford, M. F. (eds.): Human Diet. Its Origin and Evolution. Westport 2002, pp. 61-76.

11 Compare esp. Milton, K: Primate diets and gut morphology. Implications for hominid evolution. In: Harris, M; Boss, E. B. (eds.): Food and evolution. Toward a theory of human food habits. Philadelphia 1987, pp. 96-116. In the following cit. as Milton 1987. Milton 2000, pp. 665-667.

12 Aiello, L. C.; Wheeler, P.: The Expensive Tissue Hypothesis. The Brain and the Digestive System in Human and Primate Evolution. Current Anthropology 36 (1995), pp. 199-221.

13 See Cordain, L.; Watkins, B. A.; Mann, N. J.: Fatty acid composition and energy density of foods available to African hominids. Evolutionary implications for human brain development. Review of Nutrition and Diet 90 (2001), pp. 144-161. In the following cit. as Cordain 2001.

14 See Milton 2000.

15 See Richards 2002, p. 1272.

16 See i.e. Richards, M. P.: Explaining the dietary isotope evidence for the rapid adoption of the Neolithic in Britain. In: Parker Pearson, M. (ed.): Food, Culture and Identity in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. BAR International Series 1117, Oxford 2003, pp. 31-36. In the following cit. as Richards 2003. See also Budd, P.; Chenery, C.; Montgomery, J.; Evans, J.: You are where you ate. Isotopic analysis in the reconstruction of prehistoric residency. In: Parker Pearson, M. (ed.): Food, Culture and Identity in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. BAR International Series 1117, Oxford 2003, pp. 69-78. See furthermore Molleson 1993. See furthermore Mahoney 2006.

17 See Richards 2002, p. 1274. To illustrate the operation with stable isotope data and their analytic elucidation see esp. Diagram 1: “The utilization of stable isotope evidence concerning carnivores, herbivores and C3 and C4 plants”.

18 See esp. Fig. 2: “Bone collagen δ13 C and radiocarbon ages from Mesolithic and Neolithic humans from Denmark”. See Ambrose, S. H.: Controlled diet and climate experiments on nitrogen isotope ratios of rats. In:

19 See esp. Diagram 1: “The utilization of stable isotope evidence concerning carnivores, herbivores and C3 and C4 plants”. δ13 C is used to illustrate the consumption of C3 and C4 plants, as δ15 N is utilized to investigate the trophic level of dietary protein.

20 See Richards 2003, pp. 31-32.

21 See i.e. Copley, M.S.; Berstan, R.; Mukherjee, A. J.; Dudd, S. N.; Straker, V.; Payne, S.; Evershed, R. V.: Dairying in antiquity III. Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science 32 (2006), pp. 523-546. See also Crawford, G.; Underhill, A.; Zhao, Z.; Lee, G.-H.; Feinman, G.; Nicholas, L.; Luan, F.; Yu, H.; Fang, H.; Cai, F.: Late Neolithic Plant remains from Northern China. Preliminary Results from Liangchengzhen, Shandong. Current Anthropology 46 (2005), pp. 309-346. See furthermore Teaford, M. F.; Runestad, J. A: Dental microwear and diet in Venezuelan primates. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 88 (1992), pp. 347-364. In the following cit. as Teaford 1992.

22 Richards 2002, p. 1273.

23 See esp. Nystrom, P.; Cox, S.: The use of dental microwear to infer diet and subsistence patterns in past human populations. A preliminary study. In: Parker Pearson, M. (ed.): Food, Culture and Identity in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. BAR International Series 1117, Oxford 2003, pp. 59-68, pp. 62-64. See furthermore Larsen 1991, pp. 187-189 and 195-196. See also Larsen, C. S.: Biological changes in human- populations with agriculture. Annal review of Anthropology 24 (1995), pp. 145-159. In the following cit. as Larsen 1995.

24 See Teaford 1996. See also Mahoney 2006.

25 See above.

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Food Preparation Methods used in the Neolithic Period
The University of Liverpool
Diet, Evolution and Culture
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food, preparation, methods, neolithic, period, discussion
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Magister Artium Holger Skorupa (Author), 2008, Food Preparation Methods used in the Neolithic Period, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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