Earliest direct evidence of plant processing in prehistoric Saharan pottery

Nat Plants. 2016 Dec 19;3:16194. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2016.194.


The invention of thermally resistant ceramic cooking vessels around 15,000 years ago was a major advance in human diet and nutrition1-3, opening up new food groups and preparation techniques. Previous investigations of lipid biomarkers contained in food residues have routinely demonstrated the importance of prehistoric cooking pots for the processing of animal products across the world4. Remarkably, however, direct evidence for plant processing in prehistoric pottery has not been forthcoming, despite the potential to cook otherwise unpalatable or even toxic plants2,5. In North Africa, archaeobotanical evidence of charred and desiccated plant organs denotes that Early Holocene hunter-gatherers routinely exploited a wide range of plant resources6. Here, we reveal the earliest direct evidence for plant processing in pottery globally, from the sites of Takarkori and Uan Afuda in the Libyan Sahara, dated to 8200-6400 bc. Characteristic carbon number distributions and δ13C values for plant wax-derived n-alkanes and alkanoic acids indicate sustained and systematic processing of C3/C4 grasses and aquatic plants, gathered from the savannahs and lakes in the Early to Middle Holocene green Sahara.