Ancient humans only gradually warmed up to agriculture

For better or worse, agriculture is quite possibly humanity's defining development, allowing people to settle down in one place and build the complex civilizations that we live in today. But ancient humans weren't totally sure about this whole agriculture thing.

That's the finding of new research by archaeologists from the University of York and the University Bradford, who examined cooking residues from 133 ceramic vessels used in ancient Northern Europe. The pots date back to around 4000 BCE, which is when the earliest evidence for agriculture is found in that particular region. As such, these pots can give us some idea of what people were eating right at the dawn of agriculture.

The cooking residues can reveal whether people were eating plants, terrestrial animals, or fish. While evidence of certain grains would point to a largely agricultural existence, the presence of fish would suggest the ancient humans still focused mostly on hunting. The researchers found that about a fifth of all pots found along the coast contained fats and oils that could only have come from fish. What's more, pots from further inland still showed strong signs of fish, suggesting humans were getting a lot of their food from freshwater fish in nearby rivers.

As lead research Dr. Oliver Craig explains, this suggests that agriculture probably wasn't seen as some massive cultural shift, but rather something to add onto the way people already did things:

"This research provides clear evidence people across the Western Baltic continued to exploit marine and freshwater resources despite the arrival of domesticated animals and plants. Although farming was introduced rapidly across this region, it may not have caused such a dramatic shift from hunter-gatherer life as we previously thought."

Via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Image by Hans S on Flickr.