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31 August 2017
Archaeologists track ancient wheat in Bronze Age box

In a small wooden box, 2.650m (8.000 ft) above sea level in the Swiss Alps, archaeologists have uncovered new evidence that could help map the use and spread of ancient grains. When the box was initially uncovered by archaeologists in the area, they only expected to find milk residue or some type of porridge inside. Instead they made an amazing microscopic discovery.
     In the box, the archaeologists were able to discover lipid-based biomarkers for whole wheat or rye grain, which are called alkylresorcinols. This discovery is an important one as it gives archaeologists the possibility to trace the development of early Eurasian farming. This analysis was carried out be research from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York.
     Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said: "We didn't find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies."
     "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 next step is to look for them in ceramic artefacts," Dr Colonese added.
     Dr Jessica Hendy, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: "The evidence of cereals came from the detection of lipids, but also from preserved proteins. This analysis was able to tell us that this vessel contained not just one, but two types of cereal grains - wheat and barley or rye grains. Combining these two kinds of molecular analysis, along with microscopy, is strong evidence that cereals were being transported across this alpine pass."
     From the results of the study the authors believe that the Schnidejoch pass was not just a settlement, but also used for small scale trade. Francesco Carrer, one of the study's authors said: "This evidence sheds new light on life in prehistoric alpine communities, and on their relationship with the extreme high altitudes. People traveling across the alpine passes were carrying food for their journey, like current hikers do."

Edited from PhysOrg (26 July 2017), National Geographic News (27 July 2017)

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