Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why flour matters

A couple of days ago, I mentioned how excavations at a Paleoindian site in Utah has revealed that the site's occupants had been milling various seeds to produce different kinds of flours. In that post, I mentioned how this discovery re-emphasized the fact that hunter-gatherers in general hunt as well as gather. In ResearchBlogging.orgfact, outside of the highest latitudes, plant foods often account for a majority of the caloric intake of ethnographically-documented forager groups, suggesting that this was also very likely the case in prehistory. This is an especially important realization for Paleoindian research, since public (and sometimes even academic) perception is that Clovis and Folsom foragers were essentially big guys with big spears killing big things, i.e., megafauna. Estbalishing that they were not only collecting plants but also processing some of them rather intensively (grinding is a very time-consuming activity, and so is the shaping of grinding implements) reinforces recent research that suggests that Paleoindian diets were as a whole much more diverse than is generally believed (Hill 2008).

Grinding plant matter into flour also has important other implications about the structure of hunter-gatherer subsistence and social life, however. To understand these, it's helpful to look at some of the earliest traces of flour production in the archaeological record, one example of which is provided by the Gravettian site of Bilancino, in Tuscany, Italy, which dates to about 25,000BP uncal. (Aranguren et al. 2007), and which I mentioned briefly earlier. Bilancino is a very interesting site: because of preservation issues, namely the acidic nature of the sediment there, no bone was preserved at all. This has forced the investigators to thoroughly investigate other kinds of archaeological remains that are not usually the focus of such intensive scrutiny in many Paleolithic studies. This includes notably charcoal, pollen and starch grain recovered from the surface of a grindstone. These efforts have paid off in spades by revealing that the occupants of Bilancino had been grinding cattail (Typha latifolia), likely its roots, as well as wild grasses to produce flour.

Aranguren et al. (2007) explicitly discuss the potential impact of flour on Paleolithic lifeways. They specificallyhighlight that it "implies the availability of an elaborate product, a flour, with high energy content, that is rich in carbohydrates, easily storable and transportable, to make a kind of bread (biscuits) or a porridge" (Aranguren 2007: 853). This means that plant material could be preserved and stored for much longer periods of time, which effectively can provide carbs during seasons such as winter during which they are normally difficult if not impossible to obtain. Also, it provides a subsistence items that serves as a buffer against the fluctuating availability of other types of subsitence resources, such as animal tissue. Lastly, because flour is easily ingested and digested, it also provides a foodstuff that both very young and very old members of a group can consume - and maybe even produce while adults are off procuring other things. This means that survival to adulthood and into old age can be facilitated, which has the potential of significantly reorganizing the way labor is divided within a society, and increasing the generational knowledge available to given forager groups.


Aranguren,Biancamaria, Becattini, Roberto, Mariotti Lippi, Marta, & Revedin, Anna (2007). Grinding flour in Upper Palaeolithic Europe (25000 years bp) Antiquity, 81 (314), 845-855

HILL JR, M. (2008). Variation in Paleoindian fauna use on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains of North America Quaternary International, 191 (1), 34-52 DOI: 10.1016/j.quaint.2007.10.004


Maju said...

I went through this one first without paying much attention but it is a most interesting matter. Really flour (and maybe other preserved foods: dry meat or fruits maybe?) would have allowed foragers to have some minimal mid-term reserves and planning rather than strictly living on almost daily basis (if you don't hunt/gather today, you don't eat), as is often assumed.

Of course, if highly migratory, they would not have got anywhere to keep reserves and could only keep whatever they could carry. But camps are often somewhat stable, even if they may not last for long periods, so they could certainly store some reserves. Not at the level of sedentary farmers or even Mesolithic sedentary gatherers but still this behavior does point clearly to the fundamentals on which Neolithic would eventually evolve.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

"this discovery re-emphasized the fact that hunter-gatherers in general hunt as well as gather"

This of the opposite of what you mean to say.