Wheat residue found in Bronze Age lunch box

In 2012, a wooden box was exposed by melting glacier ice of the Lötschenpass, 2650 meters above sea level in the Bernese Alps. Round and about eight inches in diameter, the unusual box was made of three different kinds of wood: pine for the floor, willow for the curved side and spliced larch boughs for the seams joining floor to side. Radiocarbon testing found the box dates to the early Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago.

The ice that preserved the wooden box for four millennia also preserved traces of its contents. An international team of researchers analyzed the residue expecting to find milk remnants, perhaps all that was left of a porridge type food. Samples of the residue were subjected to lipid and protein analysis. Researchers examined the samples using microscopic and molecular analysis to identify any lipids and gas chromatography mass spectrometry for the proteins, a combination of techniques commonly used to identify residue in ancient and prehistoric ceramic vessels which survive in far greater numbers than wooden ones.

The results were surprising. Instead of milk remnants, the team found alkylresorcinols, indicators of the presence of whole grains.

Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said : “We didn’t find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies”.

“This is an extraordinary discovery if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions.

“One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants, there are only a few and they do not preserve very well in ancient artefacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains, it really is very exciting. The next step is to look for them in ceramic artefacts,” Dr Colonese added.

If phenolic lipids can be identified in ceramic vessels as well, it opens up the possibility of tracing the use and spread of cereals at the dawn of agriculture, information that is currently non-existent.

Researchers can’t tell at this point how the wheat cultivars made their way into the Swiss Alps. Some of the valleys in the area are known to have been inhabited during the Bronze Age, and grave goods have been discovered in burials in the neighboring canton of Valais that were imports from north and south of the mountains. The Lötschenpass may have been part of a trade route linking the Bernese Highlands to the Valais. Or it may not have anything to do with trade, just a box lunch packed by a lone hiker on a hunt or a drover pasturing cattle at higher altitudes than archaeologists realized were being used for grazing during this period.

Dr Francesco Carrer, from Newcastle University, said: “This evidence sheds new light on life in prehistoric alpine communities, and on their relationship with the extreme high altitudes. People travelling across the alpine passes were carrying food for their journey, like current hikers do. This new research contributed to understanding which food they considered the most suitable for their trips across the Alps.”

The study on the identification of cereals in the Bronze Age box has been published in Scientific Reports and can be read here.

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3 Comments »

Comment by Trevor Butcher
2017-07-28 05:16:18

Cheese sandwich, anyone?

 
Comment by Heidi Appenzell
2017-07-28 07:51:26

Was there a spindle too ? If so, IKEA Switzerland might come up with a reincarnation “Brǿdbǿx”. The Rǿndbrǿd itself they do sell already.

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Besides, “The pressure on local fodder capacities and the need for alternative herding regimes must have involved diverse access to grazing resources” (herding practices from 5K years ago: “A limited number of cattle show comparatively high -i.e., radiogenic- 87Sr/86Sr ratios that are consistent with translocation to, and from, nearby high-altitude areas.”).
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Anyway, herder or trader …or maybe cattle trader ? :evil:

 
Comment by dearieme
2017-07-28 09:20:58

I’m disappointed that they haven’t told us what was in his sandwich (wouldn’t it be exciting if it were tomato?). I do think they should ask for a quotation from the current (11th) Earl of Sandwich.

 
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