8,000-Year-Old Ceramic Vessels from Çatalhöyük Reveal Hidden Cuisine of Early Farmers

An analysis of ancient food proteins preserved in ceramic vessels found at the key early farming site of Çatalhöyük in central Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, has revealed that this community processed mixes of cereals, pulses, dairy and meat products, and that particular vessels may have been reserved for specialized foods, such as cow milk and milk whey. The results appear in the journal Nature Communications.

This is an artist's impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

This is an artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski.

Çatalhöyük is one of the largest and best preserved Neolithic sites in the world. It is located southeast of the modern Turkish city of Konya, about 90 miles from Mount Hasan.

The settlement was founded around 7500 BC and was inhabited for more than two millennia. It showcases a fascinating layout in which houses were built directly next to each other in every direction and stands out for its excellent preservation of finds.

In the new study, scientists analyzed the broken fragments of open bowls and jars from the West Mound excavation area of Çatalhöyük, dating to a narrow timeframe of 5900-5800 BC, towards the end of the site’s occupation,

The exceptionally well-preserved calcified deposits on the insides of the ceramics allowed the researchers to use cutting-edge protein and lipid analysis to gain a new detailed picture of the diets of Çatalhöyük farmers.

The team determined that some of the pottery was used to hold cereal grains, legumes, meat and dairy products.

Summary of dietary-derived protein identifications: the left graph summarizes proteins extracted from the ceramic matrix of the sherd’s interior wall and the right graph summarizes proteins extracted from calcified deposits adhering to the inner wall; filled icons represent protein taxonomic assignments to the genus or species level, while transparent icons represent identifications to higher taxonomies (subfamily, family). Image credit: Hendy et al, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06335-6.

Summary of dietary-derived protein identifications: the left graph summarizes proteins extracted from the ceramic matrix of the sherd’s interior wall and the right graph summarizes proteins extracted from calcified deposits adhering to the inner wall; filled icons represent protein taxonomic assignments to the genus or species level, while transparent icons represent identifications to higher taxonomies (subfamily, family). Image credit: Hendy et al, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06335-6.

The dairy products were shown to have come mostly from sheep and goats, and also from the bovine (cattle) family.

The non-dairy animal products (meat and blood) came primarily from the goat and sheep family, and in some cases from bovines and deer.

The cereals included barley and wheat, and the legumes included peas and vetches.

Interestingly, many of the pots contain evidence of multiple food types in a single vessel, suggesting that the residents mixed foods in their cuisine, potentially as porridges or soups, or that some vessels were used sequentially for different food items, or both.

One particular vessel however, a jar, only had evidence for dairy products, in the form of proteins found in the whey portion of milk.

“This is particularly interesting because it suggests that the residents may have been using dairy production methods that separated fresh milk into curds and whey,” said study lead author Dr. Jessica Hendy, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

“It also suggests that they had a special vessel for holding the whey afterwards, meaning that they used the whey for additional purposes after the curd was separated.”

Examples of calcified deposits from modern and ancient vessels at Çatalhöyük: (a) examples of CaCO3 accretions from a modern tea water pot with extensive calcified deposits used near the research project compound Çatalhöyük; (b) a close-up of calcified deposits; (c) a relatively intact vessel (not analyzed in this study) demonstrating bowl shape and extent of calcified deposits; and (d) a selection of four sherds analyzed in this study showing deposits adhering to the inside surface of the ceramic sherds. Image credit: Hendy et al, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06335-6.

Examples of calcified deposits from modern and ancient vessels at Çatalhöyük: (a) examples of CaCO3 accretions from a modern tea water pot with extensive calcified deposits used near the research project compound Çatalhöyük; (b) a close-up of calcified deposits; (c) a relatively intact vessel (not analyzed in this study) demonstrating bowl shape and extent of calcified deposits; and (d) a selection of four sherds analyzed in this study showing deposits adhering to the inside surface of the ceramic sherds. Image credit: Hendy et al, doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06335-6.

“By combing different analytical techniques, it feels as though we have really made a breakthrough towards revealing the true variety of foods processed in prehistoric pottery,” said co-author Professor Oliver Craig, a scientist at the University of York.

“Shotgun proteomics reveals proteins derived from different species and tissues while lipid analysis allows us to crudely quantify the contribution of different foods present.”

According to the researchers, an even greater variety of foods (especially plant foods) were likely eaten at Çatalhöyük, which either were not contained in the vessels they studied or are not present in the databases they use to identify proteins.

“We used shotgun proteomic approaches for the protein analysis which are heavily dependent on reference sequence databases, and many plant species are not represented or have limited representation,” Dr. Hendy said.

“For example, there are only six protein sequences for vetch in the databases, but for wheat, there are almost 145,000.”

“An important aspect of future work will need to be expanding these databases with more reference sequences.”

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Jessica Hendy et al. 2018. Ancient proteins from ceramic vessels at Çatalhöyük West reveal the hidden cuisine of early farmers. Nature Communications 9, article number: 4064; doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-06335-6

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