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Ancient Cauldrons Tell Us What the People of the Bronze Age Really Ate

A modern metal cauldron hangs over a small fire. There is snow on the ground behind the cooking site.
Credit: Vadim Artyukhin / Unsplash.
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The Bronze Age peoples of the Caucasus feasted on communal stews made from deer, sheep, goats and cows, a new study has found. Using analyses of fat residues preserved on ancient cooking cauldrons, researchers are beginning to piece together what food our ancient ancestors ate and how it was prepared.

The research is published in the journal iScience.

Studying ancient diets

To find out what humans ate in the times before written recipes, archeologists used to be limited to examining the condition and wear of teeth from skeletal samples. Cavities, tooth decay and other remnants of dental diseases that could not be properly cared for at the time provided valuable clues as to the type of foods eaten and the macronutrient intake of different peoples.

Over time, advanced scientific screening methods allowed this analysis to become much more precise. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes from collagen samples in skeletal remains have been used to identify the consumption of plant and animal foods by Bronze Age peoples in the Balearic islands, while DNA extracted from tartar deposits on ancient teeth tells us more about changes in oral bacteria among the last hunter-gatherers.

But teeth aren’t the only archaeological remains that came into contact with ancient food – metal cooking pots have also been found at some sites. Just like teeth can preserve ancient proteins in mineralized plaque deposits, ancient pottery and metalwork can also harbor residual proteins from meals long past.

Analysis finds traces of bovine and dairy proteins

In a new study, researchers examined eight residue samples taken from seven cauldrons recovered from Bronze Age archeological burial sites in the Caucasus region.

These metal cauldrons are an ideal vessel for study, the researchers explain, as many metal alloys have natural antimicrobial properties that prevent soil microbes from degrading the protein residues over time.

Analysis of the cauldron samples identified the presence of heat shock protein beta-1, which indicates that the cauldrons were likely used to cook deer or bovine (cow, yak or water buffalo) tissues during their working lifetimes. Milk proteins belonging to either sheep or goats were also found, suggesting that the Bronze Age peoples of this region were also using this cookware to prepare dairy products.

“It’s really exciting to get an idea of what people were making in these cauldrons so long ago,” said Shevan Wilkin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich Institute of Evolutionary Medicine. “This is the first evidence we have of preserved proteins of a feast—it's a big cauldron. They were obviously making large meals, not just for individual families.”

“We have already established that people at the time most likely drank a soupy beer, but we did not know what was included on the main menu,” added Viktor Trifonov, senior researcher at the Institute for the History of Material Culture.

Bronze Age cookware was built to last

If your parents ever passed you down a good-quality Dutch oven or a hardy cast iron skillet, you might have unintentionally participated in a tradition that’s existed for thousands of years. As the researchers report, these ancient pots weren’t just interesting because they have preserved remnants of the food that was cooked in them – they also showed signs of extensive repair. This would imply that the cauldrons were considered to be very valuable to their owners in terms of their utility, but also possibly as symbols of wealth or social position that were passed down through generations.

Radiocarbon dating of the samples allowed the researchers to narrow down their use to the years between 3520–3350 BCE, during a time known as the Maykop period in the western Caucasus region. This dating puts the recovered cauldrons at more than 3,000 years older than any other vessels that have been analyzed previously.

“It was a tiny sample of soot from the surface of the cauldron,” said Trifonov, referencing the carbon dating process. “Maykop bronze cauldrons of the fourth millennium BC are a rare and expensive item, a hereditary symbol belonging to the social elite.”

The research team says that they would like to conduct similar studies on residues collected from a wider range of vessel types found across the western Eurasian Steppe. With food being an important aspect of cultural identity, the researchers believe that more studies on this theme could help to build up a picture of the cultural connections between different regions.

“We would like to get a better idea of what people across this ancient steppe were doing and how food preparation differed from region to region and throughout time,” said Wilkin.

“If proteins are preserved on these vessels, there is a good chance they are preserved on a wide range of other prehistoric metal artifacts,” Wilkin added. “We still have a lot to learn, but this opens up the field in a really dramatic way.”

Reference: Wilkin S, Hommel P, Miller AV et al. Curated cauldrons: Preserved proteins from early copper alloy vessels illuminate feasting practices in the Caucasian steppe. iScience. 2023. doi:10.1016/j.isci.2023.107482*

* Due to a production delay, the paper will not be available online until August 24, 2023.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Cell Press. Material has been edited for length and content.