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What did our ancestors have on their plate?

Shutterstock / Vitalii MikhailiukFrancis Bacon said that hope is a great breakfast. Surely their diet was very different from ours. Not surprisingly, it has changed a lot throughout evolution. But what role did food play in our history? Recent studies date the introduction of meat two million years ago. This has been determined by the presence of animal bones with signs of fleshing in the Olduvai site (Tanzania), considered the cradle of humanity. In addition, our diet was affected by different factors: sociocultural, religious, environmental and technological. We know, for example, many Roman recipes thanks to direct sources, such as Cato. But how can we know what was on the menu of ancient populations like Homo erectus? When there are no written sources available, anthropologists turn to a type of bibliography that never lies: our skeleton. Studying stable isotopes allows us to reconstruct the diet of our ancestors. We do this by analyzing molecules that, from food, pass into the body and remain in the structure of our bones. The bone is renewed and replaced during a period ranging from ten to thirty years throughout a person’s life. Thus, it provides information on an individual’s long-term average diet prior to death. There are multiple approaches, but the most common in stable isotope studies is to determine the proportions of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) in bone collagen. This is the most abundant protein within bone and is made up of chemical elements as varied as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. What information does stable isotope analysis give us? On the one hand, these isotopes reflect the proportions of C3 plants, characteristics of cold and temperate climates such as cereals (wheat, barley, oats) and C4 plants, characteristics of warmer climates such as sugar cane, corn or sorghum. All of them are consumed in the diet and help to produce information on various environmental parameters. On the other hand, the nitrogen isotope values ​​determine the position in the food chain of herbivores and carnivores. These can provide clues about animal protein intake. A factor that can condition the presence of certain isotopes in bones is the environment. A specific geographic location offers specific resources to local populations. According to this principle, for example, there is a higher consumption of fish in coastal societies. Münster Peace Celebration Banquet (Bartholomeus Van der Helst, 1648). Wikimedia Commons / Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Are there differences in diet between social classes? As we can see from the studies carried out, the difference in social class is reflected in the diet. Variations can be observed between the daily food of the ruling classes and the rest of the population. Thus, the nobility based their diet on the consumption of meat. He enjoyed sumptuous meals, much like the image we have of our current Christmas banquets. There is low consumption of other foods such as cereals. This is reflected in the teeth, with less dental wear compared to the flat population, who based their diet on the consumption of cereals and legumes. The analysis of the bones has allowed us to show access to private medical care in the case of the nobility, with the introduction of certain products into the diet. This is the case of Queen María de Padilla: traditionally, the written sources of the time recommended a change in diet for elite women during pregnancy, consisting of white bread, chicken broth, eggs and hazelnuts. The access of this part of the population to products initially associated with the consumption of drugs is also observed, highlighting the case of sugar, to mask the unpleasant taste of the remedies of the time. Group of peasants sharing a simple meal of bread and drink, Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio, 14th century. Wikimedia Commons / National Library of France Changes in diet are not only related to social class: isotope studies also show us differences in different cultures. In this way, the results show a differentiated consumption of food, either due to religious reasons (absence of consumption of pork in Islamic societies) and cultural, with the implementation of certain plant species typical of other latitudes. This is the case of sorghum or sugar cane, very present in the diet of societies in the south of the Peninsula. Inspired by the words of the 18th century French gastronomic Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, indeed the discovery of a new dish is as important as the discovery of a new star for the evolutionary path of humanity.This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original. The signatories are not salaried, or consultants, nor do they own shares, nor do they receive financing from any company or organization that can obtain benefit from this article, and they have declared that they lack relevant links beyond the academic position mentioned above.

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