Is Farming Older Than We Thought? — Chromatography Explores
Aug 22 2017
There have been many revolutions in human history. The industrial revolution when we started to harness the energy from newly invented steam engines — or the amazing and rapid increases seen in the technology revolution currently taking place. But, many historians and anthropologists argue that the most important human revolution of all was when humans started farming.
How and when we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers has captivated researchers for centuries. New research carried out by scientists at the University of York and published in Scientific Reports could help researchers piece together the beginnings of the most important revolution.
Planting seeds for the future
When humans started planting crops — rather than gathering in plants — is considered a significant change in our development as a species. But finding evidence for the use of cereals such as wheat or rye is extremely difficult.
Part of the problem is that plant residues are very difficult to identify, especially if the food has been cooked. Cereals have low levels of chemically stable fats and high starch content. But the starch breaks down during cooking and degrades relatively quickly afterwards. Other plant matter in Bronze Age utensils is easier to determine, especially if they have waxy leaves or oil rich seeds.
Hunting for wheat
The team from York examined the residues found in a container found in the mountains of Switzerland — and found some interesting biomarkers that could help trace the development of farming in Europe. Over the past 30 years, archaeologists have analysed thousands of artefacts for food residues and found lots of evidence for milk and meat products. But it is grains like wheat — the most widely grown crop — that is at the heart of many cultures, and evidence of when we started to cultivate wheat is scarce.
The team used gas chromatography mass spectrometry to analyse the residues and identified biomarkers that could in future be used to identify wheat in Bronze Age artefacts. The use of chromatography to analyse food residues is discussed in the article, LC-MS/MS and GC-MS/MS Multi Residue Pesticide Analysis in Fruit and Vegetable Extracts on a Single Tandem Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer.
Biomarkers for wheat
In their analysis, the team found biomarkers for wheat and barley, providing strong evidence that the grains were being transported through the alps. Dr Colonese, the lead author on the paper stated that:
“One of the greatest challenges of lipid analysis in archaeology has been finding biomarkers for plants, there are only a few and they do not preserve very well in ancient artefacts. You can imagine the relevance of this study as we have now a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains, it really is very exciting.”
The findings help to shed new light on prehistoric farming and finding molecular markers for wheat could contribute to important research on how farming in Europe started and spread.
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