Mummies provide new insights
The scientific examination of mummies provides another way to reconstruct the diets of early peoples. In mummies, not just the bones are preserved but also soft tissues and organs, sometimes even parts of the digestive tract or stomach and intestinal contents. In this context, a particularly impressive specimen is the mummy of a 5300-year-old corpse that was preserved by a glacier and is known worldwide today by the nickname “Ötzi” or the “Iceman”.
The study of Ötzi’s corpse began with isotope analyses. The initial results indicated that the Iceman was primarily a vegetarian or even a vegan. This appeared to refute the view that in the late Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) and in the Chalcolithic Period (Copper Age), the hunting of meat, and hence its consumption, was still a major dietary factor. This view is supported by the bones and antlers of wild animals found during archaeological excavations of settlements from this period, as well as by the Iceman’s own hunting equipment – a bow and arrows.
More recent analysis of Ötzi’s stomach and intestines has resolved this contradiction: the contents of his intestines have revealed fragments of bones from an ibex, alongside various remains of plant origin. A detailed genetic analysis of his intestinal contents also showed that he had consumed venison. The latest study conducted on his stomach contents revealed that his last meal consisted largely of ibex and venison with a high percentage of fat. Studies have also shown that the Iceman – and, indeed, the entire population of present-day South Tyrol – had a very balanced diet. Early types of grain – such as einkorn and emmer – were probably consumed in the form of porridge or bread. The diet also included a large number of other plant products, including various vegetables, fruits and wild berries, as well as dried wild fruits.
From hunter to farmer
The transition from life as hunter and gatherer to the production of food and thus farming, was a decisive turning point in the history of civilisation. Twelve thousand years ago, in what is today southeast Turkey, nomadic life turned more sedentary with the emergence of crop and animal husbandry. Over the next millennium of the Neolithic Period, this sedentary way of life spread from the region of the Fertile Crescent across Europe (hence the term “Neolithic Revolution”).
The exact reasons for the success and rapid expansion of this new mode of life are still disputed. An important factor was the fast growth of the population and the greater demand for food. With the cultivation of crops, more grain could be produced; at the same time, the size and number of grain kernels increased. Wild animals were still an important source of food, but over time shortages forced people to breed animals as well. The domestication of wild animals allowed people to use them more exhaustively – they were kept as work animals, and provided their keepers with skins and wool as well as meat.
As time progressed, protein and high-fat milk and cheese products became an ever more important food source. Initially milk must have played a minor role in people’s diets, as it took hundreds of years before an adolescent or adult body in Europe was able to tolerate milk. Genetic analyses of the Iceman and other skeletons have revealed that the majority of European people were still lactose intolerant in the Neolithic Period, which meant that after they stopped nursing they were unable to digest the sugar in milk.
These investigations of pre- and early historical diets compellingly show the interrelationship between nutritional strategies, successful development and the spread of humankind.