Ancient lipids reveal continuity in culinary practices across the transition to agriculture in Northern Europe

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Nov 1;108(44):17910-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1107202108. Epub 2011 Oct 24.


Farming transformed societies globally. Yet, despite more than a century of research, there is little consensus on the speed or completeness of this fundamental change and, consequently, on its principal drivers. For Northern Europe, the debate has often centered on the rich archaeological record of the Western Baltic, but even here it is unclear how quickly or completely people abandoned wild terrestrial and marine resources after the introduction of domesticated plants and animals at ∼4000 calibrated years B.C. Ceramic containers are found ubiquitously on these sites and contain remarkably well-preserved lipids derived from the original use of the vessel. Reconstructing culinary practices from this ceramic record can contribute to longstanding debates concerning the origins of farming. Here we present data on the molecular and isotopic characteristics of lipids extracted from 133 ceramic vessels and 100 carbonized surface residues dating to immediately before and after the first evidence of domesticated animals and plants in the Western Baltic. The presence of specific lipid biomarkers, notably ω-(o-alkylphenyl)alkanoic acids, and the isotopic composition of individual n-alkanoic acids clearly show that a significant proportion (∼20%) of ceramic vessels with lipids preserved continued to be used for processing marine and freshwater resources across the transition to agriculture in this region. Although changes in pottery use are immediately evident, our data challenge the popular notions that economies were completely transformed with the arrival of farming and that Neolithic pottery was exclusively associated with produce from domesticated animals and plants.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cooking*
  • Europe


  • Biomarkers