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Earliest direct evidence of plant processing in prehistoric Saharan pottery

Abstract

The invention of thermally resistant ceramic cooking vessels around 15,000 years ago was a major advance in human diet and nutrition13, opening up new food groups and preparation techniques. Previous investigations of lipid biomarkers contained in food residues have routinely demonstrated the importance of prehistoric cooking pots for the processing of animal products across the world4. Remarkably, however, direct evidence for plant processing in prehistoric pottery has not been forthcoming, despite the potential to cook otherwise unpalatable or even toxic plants2,5. In North Africa, archaeobotanical evidence of charred and desiccated plant organs denotes that Early Holocene hunter-gatherers routinely exploited a wide range of plant resources6. Here, we reveal the earliest direct evidence for plant processing in pottery globally, from the sites of Takarkori and Uan Afuda in the Libyan Sahara, dated to 8200–6400 bc. Characteristic carbon number distributions and δ13C values for plant wax-derived n-alkanes and alkanoic acids indicate sustained and systematic processing of C3/C4 grasses and aquatic plants, gathered from the savannahs and lakes in the Early to Middle Holocene green Sahara.

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Figure 1: Exceptionally preserved archaeobotanical remains from the Takarkori rock shelter (Tadrart Acacus, SW Libya), dating from c. 7500 to 4200 bc.
Figure 2: Partial gas chromatograms of trimethylsilylated TLEs from potsherds excavated from the Takarkori rock shelter.
Figure 3: Plot showing range of δ13C values for the alkanoic acids and n-alkane lipids derived from absorbed residues preserved in pottery from the Uan Afuda cave and the Takarkori rock shelter, Libyan Sahara.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the UK Natural Environment Research Council for the Life Science Mass Spectrometry Facility (contract no. R8/H10/63; http://www.lsmsf.co.uk) and a PhD studentship to J.D (NE/1528242/1). We also thank H. Grant of the NERC Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility (Lancaster node) for stable isotopic characterisation of reference standards and derivatizing agents. Sapienza University of Rome (Grandi Scavi di Ateneo) and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs (DGSP) are thanked for funding for the Italian Archaeological Mission in the Sahara to S.d.L. Libyan colleagues of the Department of Archaeology in Tripoli and Ghat, in particular S. Agab, Tripoli, are also thanked. Two PhD students, L. Olmi and R. Fornaciari, who studied the wild cereal archaeobotanical record, are also thanked. This study is dedicated to the memory of the remarkable scholar G. Eglinton, FRS, who died in March 2016. The findings of this paper rest in large part on the use of plant leaf wax biomarkers pioneered 50 years ago in Eglinton, G. & Hamilton, R.J. (1967)16.

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R.P.E. and S.d.L. conceived and planned the project. J.D., R.P.E., S.d.L. and A.M.M. wrote the paper. J.D. performed analytical work and data analysis. S.d.L. designed and directed the excavations and field sampling; A.M.M. studied the archaeobotanical materials and S.B. performed analytical work. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard P. Evershed.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–2, Supplementary Figures 1–6. Equation 1. (PDF 751 kb)

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Dunne, J., Mercuri, A., Evershed, R. et al. Earliest direct evidence of plant processing in prehistoric Saharan pottery. Nature Plants 3, 16194 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nplants.2016.194

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