cooking pot farming
© Anders FischerA cooking pot and wooden spoon recovered from the ร…mose bog in Zealand, Denmark. Charred food residues found in such pots show they once contained fish.
Residues in 6,000-year-old cooking pots point to a gradual transition to agriculture, contrary to received wisdom

Our ancestors' move from hunter-gathering to farming happened gradually rather than abruptly, food residues found in 6,000-year-old cooking pots suggests.

Evidence from pots found around the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe shows farmers at the beginning of the Neolithic period continued to cook the same types of food foraged by their immediate hunter-gatherer ancestors. The finding challenges the traditional view that farming quickly and completely replaced the more ancient lifestyle.

Archaeologists from the University of York and the University of Bradford studied 133 pots from farming communities in 15 different sites in Denmark and Germany. The team analysed the chemical structures of fats, oils and waxes that had been released from cooking and had soaked into the ceramic. The researchers also studied crusts of burnt food that had been preserved on the inside of the vessels.

The results, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the pots of the early farming period had been used to cook aquatic animals such as seals, freshwater and marine fish.

Evidence that humans were fishing for marine species such as eel, herring and Baltic cod is common on these sites, said Dr Oliver Craig, senior lecturer and lead researcher from the University of York. "There were also a lot of molluscs, things like oysters and mussels and cockles," he added. "What we have shown, quite surprisingly, was that farmer pottery was still used to process marine foods. So although we call them farmers and we know they had domesticated animals, they were still using wild resources."

It is not known whether the owners of the pots were farmers who migrated to the coast and then learned hunter-gatherer cooking skills or whether they were foragers who began farming. "It is not really the traditional way we think that farming spread," he said. "Some people like to think that farming was like a juggernaut that moved through Europe and destroyed what happened before."

If that had been the case, residues from marine species would have been far less common in the pots. In fact, around a fifth of them had evidence of being used to process marine and freshwater species.

The transition from fishing, hunting and gathering to farming happened around 4,000BC in Northern Europe. Farming gave greater control over food resources. "It allowed you to have a decision in what plants you wanted to have, which animals, how you were going to manage them. From a world where you are just a player amongst all these different species ... to one where you are really controlling it, farming was a massive change," said Dr Craig.