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Palaeolithic oats

9 September 2015

At http://phys.org/print360921973.html … evidence of Palaeolithic hunter gatherers grinding oats has been found in southern Italy – a stone pestle with bits of grain still attached. The study is published in the Sept 7th 2015 issue of the journal of PNAS. The grain had also been heated prior to grinding, suggesting they were first drying the grain (as they still do in the modern world). They would have obtained a powdery flour which could have been used in a variety of ways – such as bread or porridge, or a thickener in stews or gruel. They could even have made dumplings to go with their meat and vegetables.

Other remains in the cave go back 32,000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of modern humans (the Gravettian culture). The study rejects the notion oats were being farmed purposely – but were they being assisted? The authors assume people scavenged wide for enough ripe oat grains, admitting that it was time consuming. However, it is not impossible they encouraged oats to grow in certain places by removing other plants around them, maintaining an open landscape. Grasses tend to grow quickly in the wake of landscape fires – and fire clears the land of trees and shrubs. Hence, seeing what happens and putting the same thing into action, is natural human management of the land in which they lived – nothing extraordinary about that. Humans during the hunter gatherer stage ate lots of hazelnuts. They are found in abundance at Mesolithic sites in the UK and Ireland. Management of the woodland edge seems to be an appropriate practise – and this brings us to the discovery of flour at the Mesolithic site of Bouldnor Cliff in the Solent. Prior to 6200BC the western Solent was a dry valley with no direct access to the sea – although rivers existed. The shoreline of the English Channel was south of the Isle of Wight and nowhere near Bouldnor Cliff (almost opposite Lymington). The western Solent was a blind valley – with no access to the sea. However, archaeologists were forced to think in terms of flour being traded over great distances (from the East Mediterranean) in order to reach Bouldnor Cliff. Now, following the discovery in Italy that Palaeolithic people were grinding oats it seems reasonable to conclude the people of Bouldnor Cliff were actually managing or collecting grains that were ground into flour. How big a revolution was farming? Mesolithic people were also managing herds of wild animals such as deer and wild cattle by providing them with nice things to eat by making clearings and favouring tasty herbs to attract them. The introduction of sheep and domesticated cattle (which were far more docile than the indigenous aurochs) was no doubt an improvement – but the first farmers came with a package, including the skills of carpentry as well as husbandry, and the ability to dig ditches and control their section of god's acre, erecting fences and building tombs and monuments etc.

The study authors also assumed the Palaeolithic family groups were on the move, and therefore gathering oats as they went. Is this a correct view of Palaeolithic people? Did they not move seasonally, from one seasonal food source to another. They could have provided the oats with room and light, then moved on only to return at harvest when the grain was ripe. In other words, they would have been semi nomadic (semi permanent if you like) – having a set pattern of movement in the local landscape. The study also notes Palaeolithic (and therefore Mesolithic people too) used grinding stones for various roots and tubers, or any plant material that may have been difficult to digest as it was – and of course, if they had collected acorns they would have had to treat them in order for them to be palatable (and these things are doubly important when feeding their children).

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