Analysis of ancient Spanish bone reveals 'elite' diets 4,000 years ago

Scientists discover differences in the diets of rich and poor go back 4,000 years ago – including more animal protein consumed by the ‘elite’

  • Bone analysis suggests that the ancient Spanish ‘elite’ ate more animal protein 
  • The remains date from El Algar, one of the first ‘complex’ civilisations in Europe 
  • The study also found that infants switched from milk to a diet based on cereals

Food poverty is at least 4,000 years old, suggests a new study of ancient diets in the south-east coast of Spain. 

Scientists found differences between the food consumption habits of the rich and poor in the Iberian Peninsula, dating back to the Bronze Age. 

The team studied the Spanish El Algar community, one of the first ‘complex’ societies in Europe, who lived in hilltop settlements from 2,200 to 1,500 BCE.

The ‘elite’ in these societies ate more animal protein and had higher carbon and nitrogen levels than poorer communities, analysis of human bone suggests. 

The team also analysed cereal grain and animal remains to help give a clearer reconstruction of the entire food chain. 

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A 3D reconstruction of La Bastida, one of the ancient sites from which samples were studied. The economy of La Bastida would have been more productive than other Argaric sites due to their fields being fertilised regularly by the grazing of livestock. The site’s layout provide strong evidence of a marked social hierarchy

‘This study shows the importance of considering the complete trophic chain in order to adequately interpret isotope data from human remains – and also demonstrates the sophistication of El Algar farming techniques,’ said study leader Dr Corina Knipper at the Curt-Engelhorn-Centre of Archeometry (CEZA) in Mannheim, Germany.

WHAT WAS EL ARGAR? 

The El Argar civilisation ruled southern Spain between 2200 and 1550 BC.

The civilisation was a centre of activity in the Iberian Peninsula during the Bronze Age.

The settlement covers much of modern-day southeast Spain.

El Agar settlements can be characterised by large protected hill settlements and distinctive metal and pottery production. 

The beginning of El Argar marked the introduction of news means of production and tools, including moulds, anvils and grooved hammers. 

The end of the civilisation is disputed, but it could have been due to an economic collapse from a subsistence crisis caused by the over-exploitation of their surrounding environment.  

The researchers’ analysis was conducted at two different El Algar hilltop settlements – the large fortified urban site La Bastida, known today as Totana in the Murcia region, and the smaller settlement Gatas, now Turre in Almeria.

Gravesites and settlement layouts provided strong evidence of a marked social hierarchy, as indicated by a 3D recreation of the La Bastida Argaric site with a central building at the summit.

The research team’s samples from the El Algar included the remains of 75 humans from across social classes, 28 bones from domestic animals and wild deer and charred barley and wheat from the middle and late phases of El Algar civilisation.

Sampled human remains showed no significant difference between isotope values for males and for females, suggesting that diets may have been similar between genders.

But ‘elite’ individuals at La Bastida showed higher levels of both carbon and nitrogen compared to those at Gatas, which imply the consumption of more animal-based food.

The two acneint sites studied – La Bastida and Gatas – formed part of the El Argar society in the Iberian Peninsula

The three individuals found in the two wealthiest tombs at La Bastida – two women and one man – yielded a larger proportion of meat and dairy products in the analysis.

The economy of La Bastida would have been more productive than other Argaric sites due to their fields being fertilised regularly by the grazing of livestock, the team also concluded.

‘La Bastida practised more intensive land management, combining agriculture and animal husbandry, and this allowed them to increase their farming economy and feed a considerably numerous population – one thousand people at that time,’ said Cristina Rihuete at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Location of the site of La Bastida between the mountain ranges of Espuña and La Tercia, Spain. The arrow marks the summit of the hilltop settlement

Overall the researchers found a strong reliance on cereal farming, supplemented by livestock, in the El Algar.

In particular, a range and values of carbon in the barley and wheat samples likely reflect a dry landscape, while nitrogen levels in the crops suggest El Algar people applied animal manure to their fields. 

The study also found that weaning human infants away from their mother’s milk during the Bronze Age in the Iberian Peninsula occurred before the age of two.

Tomb at La Bastida – a ceramic vessel that had been used to store grain used in the burial of an adult woman. Tomb 21 of La Bastida

Analysis of infant remains indicates that between 18 and 24 months, all infants had culminated the process of substituting breastfeeding with a diet mainly based on cereal pap.

The team say their study, published in PLOS ONE, shows the importance of analysing remains across the food chain – animal and cereal remains, as well as human – to reconstruct a prehistoric human diet.

As an example, nitrogen values were similar at both La Bastida and Gatas for barley, but higher for the domestic animals at La Bastida – which could have led to inconsistencies if not recorded. 

‘It is essential to not only investigate human remains, but also comparative samples of different former food stuffs as well as to interpret the data in the light of the archaeological and social historical context,’ Dr Knipper said. 

Combined analysis of stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes, found among the different types of plants and animals, has allowed scientists to reconstruct the whole food chain and interpret results based on a more reliable set of data, they say. 

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