Biomolecular archeology to learn about the diet of the peasants of the High Middle Ages

Biomolecular archeology to learn about the diet of the peasants of the High Middle Ages

A scientific team, in which the University of the Basque Country (UPV / EHU) participates, has carried out a study that addresses the knowledge of the feeding of the population that inhabited the village of Boadilla, a settlement of peasants from the Visigoth period (6th-8th centuries AD), on the outskirts of the current municipality of Illescas, in Toledo.

The results have been published in the magazine Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

According to the authors, biomolecular analysis allows not only rebuild the diet of a population group, but it constitutes a real alternative to historical anthropological assemblages that would have little potential if only they were studied by means of traditional methods.

The objective of the work was to demonstrate that biomolecular archeology techniques can be a useful alternative to obtain new data on various social and economic aspects of the rural societies of the Iberian Peninsula in the High Middle Ages and thus restore the historical value to these anthropological groups.

For this, on the one hand, a traditional anthropological study was carried out in order to determine the size of the population buried in Boadilla and its demographic profile (age and sex), which determined that it was a stable population in which they were all age categories represented.

Stable carbon nitrogen isotope analyzes of a part of the randomly selected population were also carried out.

According to Maite Iris García Collado, UPV / EHU researcher and first author of the study, “this technique is based on the premise that the chemical composition of the food we eat is reflected in the chemical composition of the tissues of our body. Therefore, by analyzing the composition of the anthropological remains of an archaeological population, we can know their diet ”.

Little is known about rural habitats of that time because written sources tell little about them. and the archaeological remains that they left are scarce and not very visible.

"In these types of contexts, cemeteries that occupy large areas are frequent, with graves that form irregular courses, in which one or more people were interred successively, often accompanied by different types of objects," says the researcher.

However, the anthropological material from these cemeteries, that is, the bones and teeth of the people who inhabited these villages, have not received much attention, because they are often fragmented and poorly preserved.

This has been an obstacle to the knowledge of these populations, since it was assumed that the information that could be obtained from their anthropological remains was very scarce.

Now with this research, It has been shown that the application of this type of analysis allows not only to reconstruct the diet of a population group, but it also constitutes a real alternative to record anthropological ensembles that would have little potential if only studied using traditional methods, the study highlights.

Production and consumption of cereals in the Middle Ages

According to the carbon isotopes, the diet of the buried population in Boadilla was based on winter cereals, a category that includes wheat, barley, rye or oats. However, short-cycle cereals, which in this chronology are restricted to millet and panizo, also formed an important part of the diet of that community.

“This is relevant because this and other previous studies suggest that the production and consumption of these minor cereals could be a characteristic feature of groups of peasants with some autonomy and control over their production.

Regarding the proteins of animal origin (meat, eggs, milk, dairy) that have been detected through nitrogen isotopes, their consumption would be limited and occasional. Likewise, it has been possible to rule out the consumption of fish ”.

According to the results of nitrogen isotopes, the youngest individuals (between 2 and 8 years old) consumed the least products of animal origin. Consumption of meat, eggs, dairy products and other derived products increased slightly between the ages of 8 and 14, to reach the same height as adults during adolescence (from 14 years of age).

“This means that access to these types of products was conditioned by age and that younger individuals had very restricted access to them. Furthermore, it tells us that it was from approximately 14 years of age that adolescents began to be treated as adults ”, he points out.

Another question investigated was the existence of differences in diet between individuals buried with objects of personal adornment or tools for everyday use and those who were buried without any of it.

“Often times, it has been considered that these objects, which were sometimes deposited next to the bodies, could denote the social position of the individual. However, if so, there would have been no significant differences between the diet of the most and least relevant individuals, ”says García Collado.

Finally, a set of samples of domestic animals was also analyzed, since determining the feeding patterns of these animals is useful to characterize the livestock that was practiced in that village.

“The most interesting result is that different strategies were practiced for each species. Cows, sheep and goats probably grazed on land close to the village, which contributed to the fertilization of the cultivated fields. Instead, surely the horses were sent to open pastures further away from the settlement ”, concludes the author.

Via Sync

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