1. Final Report Summary - FOOD (Food and society in Mediterranean prehistory)
Record Control Number:
Quality Validation Date:
Abstract: Food has always had a pivotal role in understanding social and cultural practices in Mediterranean prehistory. Evidence for prehistoric fishing, hunting and gathering as well as the inception of food production have traditionally relied on determining the abundance of plant and animal species, particularly from sites, normally caves, with long and continuous occupation sequences. For the Bronze Age excavations of food remains on settlement sites, finds of vessels associated with food storage and agricultural equipment attest to the importance of food production and the establishment of the Mediterranean staples, including principally grain and other seed crops, such as legumes, olives and wine. The emergence of social complexity is strongly associated with the control over such resources and the related redistribution, while feasting has been associated with emerging social elites. The archaeological record, e.g. zooarchaeological remains and palaeobotanical data, has often shaped the way we understood past foodways, carrying the intrinsic bias of representing the food that was produced or gathered as opposed to the food that was consumed.
Our project aimed at directly assessing food consumption through stable isotope analysis of human tissues, i.e. bone and dental enamel. Paeodietary data were obtained through stable carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopes from human and animal bone collagen, while the strontium (Sr) isotope ratio (87Sr/86Sr) helped us to define patterns of residential mobility and social practices, mainly in relation to access to specific foods and environments.
We sampled and analysed over 500 individuals for stable C and N isotopes and approximately 200 specimens for 87Sr/86Sr. The study of most of the sites that were initially selected for analysis was successfully completed; we further collected over 150 new samples thanks to networking during the two years of the project. A significant part of FOOD was devoted to laboratory activity, either in terms of analytical procedures or technical advancements, which were both regarded as essential aspects in any isotope investigation.
The isotope data were obtained from the largest dataset in prehistoric Italy, which provided an exhaustive overview on foodways and social practices in the peninsula. We placed our focus on specific regions, namely the Po plain, in the north of Italy, and the eastern, coastal regions of the southern part of the peninsula. This choice was mainly driven by earlier pilot studies which were undertaken by Tafuri (for relevant information refer to Tafuri et al., 2009).
The paleodietary record demonstrated a substantially homogeneous diet for either Neolithic or Bronze Age groups of the peninsula, with a number of interesting exceptions. In the north of Italy our pilot study highlighted an unexpectedly early introduction of C4 crops, in the Olmo di Nogara region. This type or resource, which we interpreted as millet, i.e. panicum miliaceum, was hitherto believed to have entered Italy only during the later phases of the Bronze Age and the early stages of the Iron Age. We searched for further evidence of consumption of such crop in the northern regions, through the analysis of coeval and earlier sites in the proximity of Olmo di Nogara, nevertheless we found that no evidence of C4 plant consumption was attested elsewhere in the north. Therefore, Olmo di Nogara represented a striking unicum that called for further investigation.
In the south of Italy there seemed to be a continuous, uninterrupted food habitus, mainly based on the consumption of C3 plant resources, primarily wheat and barley, along with a relatively little contribution of animal proteins. These nutrition habits persisted from the earlier phases of the Neolithic, to at least the Middle Bronze Age. The lack of evidence of C4 plant consumption even at later phases mirrored the pattern of spread of this type of crop, which likely reached the northern part of the peninsula from the central and eastern Europe and only very lately spread to the southern regions.
We also analysed a selection of sites for 87Sr/86Sr ratio to reconstruct patterns of mobility within specific regions of the peninsula. In the Tavoliere, in southern Italy, the heterogeneous nature of the selected sites, which included caves, lowland open ditched villages and highland dwellings, the overall location in the vicinity of the eastern coast of the peninsula and the chronological attribution (Early and Middle Neolithic), was extremely promising for an analytical approach that aimed at highlighting patterns of residential mobility and differential origin of the individuals. The obtained data revealed a network of sites, with individuals mainly growing locally with the exception of a few outliers who possibly came from nearby sites included in the network. Furthermore, the only examined cave (grotta Scaloria) revealed a wider range of Sr signatures so as to suggest that the site was used by a larger group of individuals, possibly of different origins. This confirmed our hypothesis of the cave as a gathering place for the Middle Neolithic communities of the Tavoliere.
The C, N and Sr data proved to successfully highlight the complexity of dietary, as well as social and cultural practices in Italy, where foods were not always equally consumed along the peninsula and social implications revealed a fascinating complexity.
Subject Descriptors: Information analysis; Nutrition; Anthropology
Subject Index Codes: Life Sciences; Food; Information and communication technology applications