Discovering Ancient Food Practices: Unglazed Ceramic Cookware Retains Residue of Earlier Meals
Sat, December 3, 2022

Discovering Ancient Food Practices: Unglazed Ceramic Cookware Retains Residue of Earlier Meals



We usually talk about the future of food, such as how it will be engineered to be more nutritious, but what about its history? Knowing the evolution of food in the ancient world will help teach us about being sustainable and how to preserve traditions that combine heritage, agriculture, and environmental sensitivity, among others. It will also help us know about a society in the past and the present, including how they managed to create their food supply or how they lived.


Food in the ancient world

Melanie J. Miller from the Department of Anatomy from the University of Otago (New Zealand) and colleagues recognize the importance of studying food in the ancient world. Throughout history, the transformation of raw ingredients into a meal is a shared human experience, they said. This is why research on ancient cooking pots echoes with the fundamental aspect of what it means to be human. They added that food in the ancient world is a representation of the paleoenvironment – an environment of past geological age. It sheds light on ancient exchange networks and resources that are harvested in the local areas.

The foods consumed by our ancestors also represent the values of people who ate them, reflecting certain culturally-based choices about what they consider as “food.” For their study, the team analyzed the residues from cooking pots and other materials. They believe that doing so will help bring us a step closer to reconstructing the social and environmental circumstances of our ancestors.



Culturally-driven practices and preferences

From archeological datasets, culturally-driven practices and preferences are often not easy to discern. Although there are fragments of past meals and cooking activities that may be recovered from zooarchaeological and archaeobotanical evidence, this evidence are not sufficient to capture the range of animal species and plants prepared by our ancestors for consumption or what is their relative importance in an ecosystem or social context.

Various materials are used in the past, including leaves, skewers or sticks of organic materials, ceramic vessels, hot stones, wooden dishes, lithic tools, and more. There are also several preparation techniques, such as baking, fermenting, braising, roasting, and boiling. Pioneering research in the 1970s showed that organic residues from archeological materials retained their chemical composition.

For their study, the team discovered that unglazed ceramic cookware can hold the residue of not just the last supper cooked but even the earlier dishes cooked across that pot’s lifetime. This discovery can potentially open a window into the past.



Reconstructing meals and ingredients our ancestors consumed

The findings, which appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, highlights that gastronomic practices can be reconstructed by studying the chemical compounds absorbed by and adhering to the earthenware in which the foods were prepared.

Co-lead author Melanie Miller, who is from the Archaeological Research Facility of the UC Berkeley, told via Science Daily that their data can help researchers better reconstruct the ingredients and meals that our ancestors consumed in the past. In turn, it can reveal information on environmental, political, and social relationships within ancient communities.

Miller and Berkeley archaeologist Christine Hastorf, led a year-long cooking experiment in collaboration with seven chefs, who each prepared 50 meals made from combinations of maize (corn), wheat flour, and venison in a newly purchased La Chamba ceramic pots. La Chamba cookware has been used in restaurants and homes in Colombia for preparing and serving traditional dishes. They have also been used during pre-Colombian South America and the vessels continue to be popular for serving and preparing traditional foods today.

After analyzing the chemical residues of the meals cooked in every pot, the researchers wanted to learn whether the deposits they detected in ancient cooking vessels would also reflect the remains of the previous meals and the last meals cooked.

Hastorf said that they chose staple ingredients that could be found in different countries. For instance, one recipe used wheat flour while the two focused on hominy, which is a food produced by soaking corn in an alkaline solution. Hastorf added that they pick the food based on how the pots would react to the chemical and isotopic values of the food and how easy it would be to distinguish the chemicals in the food from one another.

Every week, each of the seven chefs prepared an experimental meal using the La Chamba pot. Miller noted that since the meals were bland, they did not eat them. However, every eight meal they prepared was charred (blackened) to replicate the carbonized residues that they found in ancient pots. This would also help mimic the pot’s lifetime. The pots were then cleaned with a branch of an apple tree and water between each meal. The archeologists were surprised that none of the pots broke during the course of their research.

At the Center for Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry of UC Berkeley, the researchers then analyzed the charred remains. The chemical analysis of the food residues found that the time scales of every meal prepared were represented by residues. For instance, the charred bits at the bottom of the pot means that it is the latest meal cooked. On the other hand, those found in the patina are remnants of the prior meals.



Present ceramic coated cookware

The database company shares that the retail sales of ceramic coated cookware in the US in 2017 reached $47.3 million from $39.5 million in 2012. In 2013, the retail sales of ceramic coated cookware in the country amounted to $42.2 million. In 2014, it reached $44.6 million and $45.1 million the year after.

US also published the typical eating patterns currently consumed by many people in the US. It found that about three-fourths of the population nowadays has an eating pattern that is low in dairy, oils, fruits, and vegetables. The dietary intakes, by food group or dietary component, are highlighted as follows: vegetables (87% of the population have intakes below the dietary goal), fruit (75% have intakes below the goal), total grains (44%), dairy (86%), protein foods (42%), oils (72%), added sugars (70%), saturated fats (71%), and sodium (89%).

The recent study will offer clues to food distribution chains, supply, and production of past eras. It could also help researchers study long-ago diets.