Early dietary diversity in Africa


A research team coordinated by Welmoed Out and environmental archaeologist Marco Madella (Barcelona) has found out that humans in Africa already exploited domestic cereals 7,000 years ago and thus several centuries earlier than previously known. The research results have been published in PLoS ONE.


Evidence of domestic cereals in Sudan as early as 7,000 years ago


Excavation Sudan

Plant particles found during the excavation of this Neolithic cemetery in Nubia (Sudan) turned out to be traces of domestic cereals when analyzed in a lab.
Copyright: D. Usai/ S. Salvatori

Humans in Africa already exploited domestic cereals 7,000 years ago and thus several centuries earlier than previously known. A research team from Barcelona, Treviso, London and Kiel was successful in verifying ancient barley and wheat residues in grave goods and on teeth from two Neolithic cemeteries in Central Sudan and Nubia. The results of the analyses were recently published (online) in the journal PLoS ONE.


Dr. Welmoed Out of the Graduate School “Human Development in Landscapes” in Kiel was involved in the investigation. “With our results we can verify that people along the Nile did not only exploit gathered wild plants and animals but even crops of barley and wheat.” These were first cultivated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago and spread out from there to Central and South Asia as well as to Europe and North Africa – the latter faster than expected. “The diversity of the diet was much greater than previously assumed,” states Out and adds: “Moreover, the fact that grains were placed in the graves of the deceased implies that they had a special, symbolic meaning.”


Grave in Sudan

One of the graves at the Neolithic cemetery in Nubia (Sudan), containing a skeleton and plant material deposited behind the skull (white structure at the left picture margin).
Copyright: D. Usai/ S. Salvatori

The research team, coordinated by Welmoed Out and the environmental archaeologist Marco Madella from Barcelona, implemented, among other things, a special high-quality light microscope as well as radiocarbon analyses for age determination. Hereby, they were supported by the fact that mineral plant particles, so-called phytoliths, survive very long, even when other plant remains are no longer discernible. In addition, the millennia-old teeth, in particular adherent calculus, provide evidence on the diet of these prehistoric humans due to the starch granules and phytoliths contained therein.


Original publication: Madella M, García-Granero JJ, Out WA, Ryan P, Usai D (2014) Microbotanical Evidence of Domestic Cereals in Africa 7000 Years Ago. PLoS ONE 9(10): e110177. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110177