Nutrition in Archaeology

Food remains discovered at a Pompeii excavation site: grape seeds, fig seeds, fish bones, and a sea urchin shell.

Today I am sharing a post relating two seemingly unrelated topics: nutrition and archaeology. Last fall, I decided to take an archaeology class to fulfill my last social sciences credit, because why not? It turned out to be one of the coolest and most interesting classes I have ever taken. Even now, I still sometimes play out scenarios in my head where I am a part of a great archaeological team excavating something cool in Eastern Europe or Mesopotamia. Archaeology is seen by a lot of people as unimportant, and nothing more than interesting information about the past to waste our time on. Yet understanding the past is extremely important for interpreting our present, for finding out technologies that work or don’t work for us, and for avoiding some of the pitfalls humanity has faced in the last tens of thousands of years.

Can archaeology offer us anything insightful about nutrition? Definitely. One branch of archaeology, called bioarchaeology, studies the remains of plants and animals rather than the inorganic structures like tools and buildings that archaeology is known for. With bioarchaeology, scientists can determine the kinds of foods that people in the past ate and the effects of those foods on their overall health. And from this information, the archaeologist can determine the impact of diet on entire societies.

Reconstructing diet

Humans have been eating food since the day humans became a thing. With a variety of technologies, archaeologists can figure out the diet of even the oldest human remains. The process of interpreting the diet of past people is referred to as diet reconstruction. With more recently deceased bodies, or bodies that are well-preserved by mummification or peat bogs, scientists can assess nutrition status by looking at hair and fingernails, or even directly inside the gastrointestinal tract to find out their last meal.

But what about this guy?

How do we find out what they ate if there’s no intestinal tract left? One way archaeologists work with skeletons is with osteoarchaeology, which assesses the structure of ancient bones and teeth to determine the diet or diseases that have impacted them. Frail bones can indicate malnourishment while dental caries (or cavities) indicate the kinds of carbohydrates in their diet. Yet another method scientists use is called stable isotope analysis, which looks at the proportions of different elements left on a fossil to find out what plants or animals may have been consumed. Scientists also use this method to find food remains in pottery, cookware, and other inorganic objects.

A fragment of the oldest non-stick cookware ever found.

How does this help us today?

Nutrition is a pretty new science, as we may all be aware; there weren’t “dietitians” thousands of years ago (that we know of). Plus, archaeology doesn’t really function to tell us what proper nutrition is or what role the different nutrients play in our health. But one thing archaeology accomplishes so well is illustrate the impact of diet on entire societies and even cultures.

One example is the transition of human societies from hunting and gathering to farming. Back when humans hunted and gathered, or essentially got their food from the wild, they had survived on plant foods like berries and tubers in addition to animal meat, and very little on complex carbohydrates; this is referred to as the “Paleolithic” diet (which is where we get the “Paleo” diet from today). While very nutrient dense, these food sources weren’t very reliable, and often people would go days or even weeks without food. Communities could not grow very large due to competition for meals. It was a hard life.

Once humans learned to farm, though, the opposite happened. Grain was domesticated and farmers not only grew enough but even made surpluses. Finally, people had a reliable source of food and communities could grow into towns and then into cities. This is known as the agricultural revolution and has made humanity into what it is today. The big downside to surviving off meat and grains alone, though, is obvious: such little diversity leads to nutritional deficiency and many diseases. This change in the human diet affects many of us even today: it reduced the average human stature and may have influenced the development of certain chronic diseases.

But strangely, while Europe, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica suffered these negative consequences, the bad effects on human health did not happen in Asia after they took up rice agriculture. While it’s not totally clear why, this observation is leading some food scientists to conclude that rice may be a better carbohydrate source than corn or wheat for overall health, at least in some populations. Of course, this is just one important finding: you can find more info about nutrition-related archaeology findings here.

So archaeology is not just super interesting – it can also be incredibly important for the field of nutrition. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past… especially when it comes to our diets!


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