About 5,000 years ago, ancient cooks were creating feasts out of cattle, deer, and milk from sheep or goats.
They could have eaten their dairy and meat separately, or mixed it together.
The evidence for these meals is found from the proteins in well-made Bronze Age pots. “We suggest that the pots were used to cook large amounts of meat and some milk in a form that was similar to a stew,” Shevan said in an email. They’re some of the earliest known metal cooking cauldrons.
Wilkin and Viktor Trifonov co-authored the study, which appeared in the journal iScience this month.
Researchers have tried studying ancient dietary habits from ceramics dishes before with little success, but Wilkin thinks the antimicrobial properties of the copper-alloy cauldrons helped preserve the ancient biomolecules.
“This finding was incredibly exciting, as it opens the possibility of many more studies into the foods and drinks prepared, served, or consumed from metallic cups, bowls, or larger vessels,” she said.
Cattle, sheep, and goat could have all been on the menu
Taking samples from seven copper-alloy cauldrons allowed the researchers to get some specific dietary information from proteins that, remarkably, still remained in the vessels 5,000 years later.
The pots contained blood, muscle, and milk proteins, representing several different types of animals. Heat shock protein beta-1, abundant in muscle tissue, helps protect cells from infection and inflammation.
An amino acid sequence in the tissue protein researchers identified belongs to the bovine subfamily or deer genus Cervus. Bronze Age cooks could have made cow, water buffalo, wild deer, or yak.
Wilkin & Trifonov found that three blood proteins were also present, one of which was specific for sheep and goats. The milk proteins show the Maykop people were also getting their dairy from these animals.
A cauldron contained both milk and blood proteins. The researchers said the pot’s owners may have cooked the meat and dairy together, but it’s impossible to tell for sure.
It’s also unknown if the stew contained grains or other crops.
“We don’t learn anything about the plants that they might have been cooking in there,” said Christine Hastorf, director of the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn’t involved in the study.
She points out that while stews are often made with vegetables, animal proteins tend to be more durable and survive longer.
Part of a communal kitchen
Wilkin believes creating these pots would have been a complicated process. “This is one of the earliest known cauldrons to date,” she said. “It would have taken a lot of knowledge and skill to make it.”
Based on radiocarbon dating, the pots are from between 3,520 to 3,350 BCE, during the Maykop period and were found in a few burial sites east of the Black Sea.
Procuring the necessary metal and finding someone skilled enough to craft the pot meant not everyone could have one. “The cauldrons are associated exclusively with the burials of the elite,” Trifonov said.
Yet the capacity of the pots — the largest had a volume of 70 liters — indicates the Maykop people used them for communal cooking.
“From the size, it is clear that this was a very large meal cooked for many people, rather than for a small family or individual,” Wilkin said.
Other types of evidence of Bronze Age-era diets help verify the researchers’ protein results, Wilkin said. Cattle, sheep, goat, and deer bones are common at Maykop sites. Dental deposits from contemporary human remains reveal they consumed a lot of dairy products.
Going forward, Wilkin thinks analyzing proteins from metal cooking vessels could lead to new discoveries in other locations, too.
“This could really allow us to study how different cultures cooked food and served it across space and time, which is exciting,” said Wilkin.
Hastorf agrees: “These are the studies that are going to move us forward on real foodways in the past,” she said. “There’s no doubt.”
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