How Did Ancient People Keep Their Food From Rotting?

Nancy J. Delong

For quarantine delicacies, lots of of us are reaching deep into the kitchen pantry and freezer — recovering canned soups and frozen veggies, acquired who appreciates when. Even though we may possibly marvel, “Are these the exact same peas I applied to ice my sprained ankle?” we’re self-confident the contents are edible. Perishables past for several years many thanks to fashionable procedures of preservation, these types of as freezing, canning, vacuum-sealing and chemical additives.

But how did ancient men and women preserve their foodstuff?

It’s a problem that every single culture, from the dawn of humanity, has confronted: How to help save food items for figurative rainy times — away from microbes, insects and other critters keen to spoil it. Over the several years, archaeologists have found proof for a wide range of strategies. Some, like drying and fermenting, continue being frequent now. Other people are bygone practices, these types of as burying butter in peat bogs. Even though very low-tech, the ancient methods have been helpful — plainly, as some of the goods have survived millennia.

Bog Butter - Nordic Food Lab

Lavatory butter. (Credit history: Nordic Food stuff Lab/University of Copenhagen)

Storage Solutions

To get a sense of what preservation strategies ancient people may well have applied, archaeologists surveyed the practices of residing and latest men and women in non-industrialized societies (below, below, below and below) They found lots of very low-tech procedures, which undoubtedly could have been achieved by men and women hundreds of several years in the past. The most frequent and acquainted include things like drying, salting, smoking, pickling, fermenting and chilling in all-natural refrigerators, like streams and underground pits. For instance, the Sami, indigenous men and women of Scandinavia, have traditionally killed reindeer in the drop and winter season the meat is dried or smoked, and the milk fermented into cheese — “a tough, compact cake which may possibly past for several years,” in accordance to a mid-twentieth-century ethnographic resource.

The numerous procedures all operate because they gradual microbial expansion. And drying does this very best: Microorganisms have to have a particular amount of money of dampness to transport nutrients and wastes into and out of their cells. With out h2o, microbes shrivel and die (or at minimum go dormant). Drying also inhibits oxidation and enzyme activity — all-natural reactions of air and food items molecules, which cause flavor and colour modifications.

Requiring small technologies, procedures like fermenting and drying could hypothetically have been applied in the distant earlier. They are a superior starting up stage for archaeologists searching for ancient proof for food items preservation. In addition, by observing the practices in action now, scientists have been equipped to observe the equipment needed and particles produced — product much more possible to survive and surface at an archaeological dig than the genuine food items.

Remaining Bits

Certainly, fairly than discovering a food items morsel — like a slab of deer jerky aged fourteen,000 several years — archaeologists have, in lots of conditions, uncovered traces of food items-preservation endeavours.

For instance, at a Swedish web page dated to eight,600 to nine,600 several years in the past, scientists discovered a gutter-shaped pit packed with much more than nine,000 fish bones, as claimed in a 2016 Journal of Archaeological Science paper. Somewhere else at the web page but exterior the gutter, the most frequent fish continues to be have been perch and pike. But in the pit, the the vast majority of specimens have been roach, a little bony fish that is tricky to consume with out some type of processing. About one particular-fifth of the roach vertebrae showed symptoms of acid hurt. The paper concluded the pit was applied for fermentation — what would make it the oldest proof for fermented food items.

Equally, in a 2019 Journal of Anthropological Archaeology examine, archaeologists analyzed much more than ten,000 animal bones recovered from a around 19,000-year-old web page in existing-day Jordan. Virtually 90 p.c of the specimens have been gazelle, and they have been found together with campfires and two- to 4-inch postholes, which possible held help beams of a very simple composition. Primarily based on this proof, and the way the gazelle bones have been smashed and butchered, the authors recommend the postholes held a rack exactly where meat was smoked and dried.

Cree Woman & Racks of Drying Meat - Provincial Archives of Alberta

A Cree female sits in entrance of a rack of drying meat in Saskatchewan. (Credit history: Provincial Archives of Alberta/Wikimedia Commons)

Historical Edibles

Some ancient continues to be may possibly continue to be consumable now, or at minimum applied to build a fashionable dish or consume.

Past year, scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem resurrected yeast cells recovered from ancient pottery vessels. Assumed to be beer jugs dependent on their shapes, the vessels came from four archaeological sites amongst 5,000 and two,000 several years old in existing-day Israel. Following awakening the dormant yeast and sequencing its genome, the scientists applied the fungi to brew beer. In accordance to their 2019 mBio paper, users of the Beer Decide Certification Software considered it drinkable, very similar in colour and aroma to English ale.

As for edibles, just about five hundred cakes of ancient butter have been found in bogs of Eire and Scotland. From at minimum the Bronze Age, around 5,000 several years in the past, as a result of the 18th century, men and women in these areas buried a form of sour, more-fatty butter in peat bogs. Scientists debate the reasoning driving butter burials — no matter if it was for ritual offerings, storage or flavor enhancement.

Whichever the rationale, microbial expansion and decomposition was inhibited in the bogs — acidic, oxygen-very poor wetlands. Forgotten butter cakes have lasted hundreds of several years and counting. Some are fairly substantial, including a three,000-year-old, 77-pound chunk discovered in 2009, and a 5,000-year-old, a hundred-pounder found in 2013.

Archaeologists maintain the bathroom butter is theoretically edible, but suggest in opposition to it. Reportedly, a movie star chef sampled an ancient morsel and Stephen Colbert pretended to on The Late Display.

A lot more careful, curious people have experimentally buried samples for shorter time spans and specified them a consider. In an 1892 problem of The Journal of the Royal Modern society of Antiquaries of Eire, the Rev. James O’Laverty wrote that butter submerged for six and 8 months “assumed the style much more of cheese than of butter… an obtained style.” In 2012, food items researcher Ben Reade done a very similar experiment. Following 3 months underground, tasters described Reade’s butter as gamey, funky and pungent, like moss, animal or salami. Following one particular and a fifty percent several years, Reade imagined it “tasted really superior.”

We’ll have to hold out a different three,000 several years for the final success.


Thanks to Brown University archaeologist Zachary Dunseth for enter on this short article.

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