About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Humans feasting on grains for at least 100,000 years

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

grain stone age cereal humansGrains might have been an important part of human diets much further back in our history than previous research has suggested.

Although cupcakes and crumpets were still a long way off during the Middle Stone Age, new evidence suggests that at least some humans of that time period were eating starchy, cereal-based snacks as early as 105,000 years ago. The findings, gleaned from grass seed residue found on ancient African stone tools, are detailed online Thursday in Science.

Researchers have assumed that humans were foraging for fruits, nuts and roots long before 100,000 years ago, but cereal grains are quite a new addition to the early prehistoric gastronomic picture. "This broadens the timeline for the use of grass seeds by our species," Julio Mercader, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Archeology and author of the paper, said in a prepared statement.

Plant domestication, most scientists think, made its debut some 10,000 years ago, with grain storage cropping up about 11,000 years ago. An ancient site in Israel yielded a hearty collection of grains, which were dated to about 23,000 years ago, according to a 2004 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper. But such an early appearance of wild cereals in the human diet—as this new paper proposes—would push the assumed date of substantial grass-seed eating back more than 70,000 years.

So just what were these gatherers purportedly gnashing?

Mercader and a team from Mozambique’s University of Eduardo Molande had uncovered hundreds of ancient artifacts in a limestone cave near Lake Nissa in Mozambique. Analyzing the surface of 70 of these tools, Mercader found some 2,370 granules of plant starch, which, he reasons, could not have accidentally come from growing plants in such dark reaches of the cave. And the fact that so many of the tools had a coating is evidence of at least some processing to make the seeds more edible.

"The inclusion of cereals in our diet is considered an important step in human evolution because of the technical complexity and the culinary manipulation that are required to turn grains into staples," Mercader said. Indeed, a descendent of the wild sorghum found on the tools still makes up a large portion of modern diets in sub-Saharan products including breads, porridge and even beer.

Other tidbits that these hungry humans appear to have been dining on during that period include the African false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges, African wine palm and the African potato, the researchers concluded. These finds are "proof of an expanded and sophisticated diet much earlier than we believed," Mercader said. And grain consumption was the first step toward grains’ domestication—and, eventually, cupcakes.

Image of sorghum courtesy of J. Mercader

Rights & Permissions

Comments 15 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. silvrhairdevil 3:26 pm 12/17/2009

    Cupcakes and crumpets?

    More importantly, grains in the diet led to the discovery of beer.

    Link to this
  2. 2. voiceofreason 8:56 pm 12/17/2009

    Exactly. Beer being the founding pillar of western civ. What fool would farm for bread? Now beer, well that’s another story.

    Link to this
  3. 3. JustJack 10:48 am 12/18/2009

    ITA. Beer. Gloray aymayen.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Spiff 12:36 pm 12/18/2009

    And Wheaties! Don’t forget the Wheaties! Beer on Wheaties – The American Breakfast of Champions!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Quinn the Eskimo 1:23 pm 12/18/2009

    This research needs work. The data, as presented is far too granulated for any definitive work.

    I think the whole subject should be allowed to ferment a little longer.

    Oh, and we should hunt down and kill the individual who invented "light" beer.

    Link to this
  6. 6. jack.123 3:53 pm 12/18/2009

    Plants using humans for pollenation?People making beer are happier,thus the planting of more seeds from which it could be made.

    Link to this
  7. 7. gothceltgirl 9:15 pm 12/18/2009

    Woo Hoo! Cupcakes & beer!

    Link to this
  8. 8. 7wesley 11:35 pm 12/18/2009

    I drink non-alchol beer I have tryed several. Does anyone have any suggestions of a really good one……well as good as a non-alchol beer can be.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jack.123 12:19 am 12/19/2009

    It appears someone needs to contact Copenhagen and tell them that mankind has been putting Co2′s in the atmosphere a lot longer than they had thought.A time machine needs to be built to go back and stop this drunken bunch.It would cost a lot less money.

    Link to this
  10. 10. jon w 11:18 am 12/24/2009

    from foraging fruits, nuts and roots, to feasting on grains? something is missing here. why the subtle portrayal of vegetarian ancestors? has the anti-meat bias now permeated even Scientific American?

    Link to this
  11. 11. pts 4:57 am 12/25/2009

    I wonder whether there is any evolutionary value to eating grains. In today’s world, certain cultures have a bigger emphasis on grains (rice) than others.

    -PTS (

    Link to this
  12. 12. pts 4:58 am 12/25/2009

    I wonder whether there is any evolutionary value to eating grains. In today’s world, certain cultures have a bigger emphasis on grains (rice) than others.

    -PTS (

    Link to this
  13. 13. sam9 8:25 pm 02/8/2010

    Fancy the content I have seen so far and will definitely return to read more later.
    <a href="; rel="follow">Sell Gold</a>

    Link to this
  14. 14. sam9 8:27 pm 02/8/2010

    Fancy the content I have seen so far and will definitely return to read more later <a href="; rel="follow">Sell Gold</a>

    Link to this
  15. 15. woody47 1:21 pm 03/4/2010

    people back then ate what ever they found to exist until some meat was hunted. i think some but not all ate less meat than we think

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article