Stone Age (Palaeolithic) flour

20 Oct 2010

At www.nature.com/news/2010/101018/full/news.2010.549.html there is a report on a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (this week) (see doi.10.1073/pnas.1006993107 ) that claims that Palaeolithic people were making flour in Europe as early as 30,000 years ago - from plant grains and roots. The idea that Palaeolithic hunters were almost exclusively meat eaters has always been insecure. Modern macho man might shun rabbit food (salads) but the use of herbs, roots and tubers, and various seeds and grains is likely to have been a legacy going all the way back to hominid origins. Even champanzees have a taste for picking out particular leaves and shoots and rejecting others that are not as tasty or have effects of some kind when consumed, so even on an evolutionary scale the use of herbs was obviously always a factor humans may have inherited from their ancestors. Chimpanzees will also eat other animals, so that too is a common legacy. Now, we have direct evidence that hunter gatherers thousands of years ago had the wherewithall to use stones to grind grains and seeds to produce a flour - residue has been found on grinding stones in different parts of Europe going back 30,000 years. Stone tools are the commonest, and in many cases the only evidence of Palaeolithic hunters that is found in the earth, or washed out by water. Stones and flints were used to cut and butcher meat, or to split bones to get at the marrow, and even without the discovery of stone tools the skeletal remains of animals with cut marks seems to indicated the meat had been carefully cut from the bone. Such stone tools have probably given a false impression - the idea that humans almost exclusively ate lots of meat. Evidence of plant consumption is of course much more difficult to find - as organic material rots.

At the same site, but a year ago, www.nature.com/news/2009/091217/full/news.2009.1147.html there was a report on research in Mozambique. In a cave was found evidence of humans and they had been grinding the seeds of sorghum grass - over 100,000 years ago. Sorghum  is still used to make a porridge like substance, or is fermented to make beer. Sorghum flour can be used to make bread - so there are a number of intriguing possibilities at very early dates. Likewise, in the Levant, wild barley and wheat was being processed at around 23,000 years ago - and possibly a lot earlier.

Over in the Americas, also at www.nature.com/news/2000/001019/full/news.001019-iu.html we learn that flat breads made from maize and manioc were common over 7000 years ago - but this was at the transition from hunters to sedantory cultivation. That may imply the notion and the practise arrived in the Americas even earlier - part and parcel of the colonisation of the New World. They also used milling stones. In addition, residues of starch indicate yams were also favoured, and various fruits and seeds and tubers. It is thought manioc may have been domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago.