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Thread: Vitamin C source in neolithic societies?

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    Vitamin C source in neolithic societies?

    Plant matter containing ascorbic acid also known as Vitamin C plays an important role in preventing Scurvy. In modern industrial societies the supply is secured by large production of vitamin c rich plant products like fruits and green vegetables.
    In prehistoric times the supply was not always possible, because plant matter was only available during summer and fall season in the northern hemisphere. Animal products like liver also containing vitamin c, but also a high amount of vitamin a which can soon become toxic, if excessive consumed.

    With neolithic revolution and massive settlement in Europe the production of protein based foods like meat, lentils, peas and dairy products became possible, also large caloric and mineral income from grain harvesting.
    In contrast an evidence for large production and cultivation of vitamin c rich foods like fruits or vegetable leafs has poorly been documented.
    Neolithic megacities harboured up to 10.000 peoples and those people had the need for large amounts for vitamin c containing foods during all year around.

    What was the source of their vitamin c? It is unlikely that meat and grains where produced in such an excessive matter, but no vitamin c source.

    The literature mostly names local species of vitamin c containing plants like crap apple,rose fruits/hips wild grapes and prunes.
    Those plants can be an explanation for vitamin c source of low populated hunter gatherer villages, but are lacking the yield for neolithic megacities. Those wild plants are regularly infested by parasites and where also used by local fauna, so their amount of fruits and their quality is generally low.

    Green peas are containing a small amount of vitamin c, even in the dried state, but this would be not enough for daily need, also consuming large amounts of them every day is toxic, even if the peas are well cooked.

    There seems to be no discovery of traces from fruit or vegetable dishes beyond grains and legumes, but milk and other animals fats are well documented in ceramic vessels. If fruit trees where cultivated, a large amount of seeds should have been found in garbage pits. If green vegetables like brassica where cultivated, pollen should have been found.

    This thread is not about speculating what they could have eaten and how they conservated their vitamin c rich food, but to find scientific sources of evidence for fruit/vegetable cultivation or traces of vitamin c rich dishes.

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    Thank you for an interesting viewpoint!

    Here is an overview of botanical remains in ancient Turkish sites (cannot post proper links):

    Bogaard et al 2017, Agricultural innovation and resilience in a long-lived early farming community: the 1,500-year sequence at Neolithic to early Chalcolithic Çatalhöyük, central Anatolia

    Hackberries, grapes and figs caught my eye. I would also suspect growing and storing of vegetables like onions, but there seems to be no evidence to date. I would also suspect that fermentation was used more than just for production of alcohol. This would retain the vitamin content of fresh vegetables for winter.

    As to legumes, fresh green peas actually contain 40 mg/100g, which is a lot considering that the RDA is 90 mg. Beans are less and this varies a lot. The minimum daily amount to avoid health issues is probably less than the RDA.

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    Hmm it seems to depend on the measured sample of peas and the national recommendation rules. In Germany 110mg vitamin C is recommended. I found for 100 grams frozen 18% of daily need. Fresh ones cooked 25% so it would require for an adult to eat 400 grams daily which is much and ugly, but possible. Dried ones 36% for 100 grams but they would gain weight if cooked and so loose some percent. The question is how good they where domesticated and how much toxins they contained. Modern food plants are well domesticated and selected against toxins. Older varieties could have much more tannin, phytoestrogens and linamarin to be protected against parasites and insects, but these chemicals causing long term degenerative disorders if consumed in a high amount daily. So that question can only be answered by a genetic analysis of the neolithic peas.

    But you are right, perhaps peas where one oft heir main source of vitamin C in Europe.
    Even in the FBC which used much more barren soils then the LBK and settled much far north, peas where farmed.

    Quote Originally Posted by traveller View Post
    Hackberries,grapes and figs caught my eye. I would also suspect growing and storing of vegetables like onions, but there seems to be no evidence to date. I would also suspect that fermentation was used more than just for production of alcohol. This would retain the vitamin content of fresh vegetables for winter.
    Maybe the amount of wild fruit trees played a role in the choice of a location for a new settlement, but in the long term fruit cultivation has to take place, if the population is constantly rising and people want fruit dishes and/or drinks.
    Grains and legumes can easily be transported over long distances and already give yield in the first year. Fruit trees however need some years to be high yielding, there must have been a strategy for this and also a strive for domestication. Genetic comparison of seeds from settlement sites and wild form could deliver the answer.

    If there is no genetic difference to be found, there can be other possibilities like long distance trading of fruits or an economy based on collecting fruits in large areas away from the settlements.

    For vegetables the evidence is low, for example wild carrots have been documented as pollen, but the wild form is toxic and the plant was used as an abortive drug in ancient times.
    Without genetic testing it is not possible to differentiate between domestic breeds and wildform in the pollen state.

    Another possibility would be to find more vessels or other objects with art portraying vegetables or fruit, but as far as I know only grains have been documented.

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    In Britain, the RDA is only 40 mg, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a minimum amount of C needed by the body was even less.

    Even in a city of several thousand, it’s also feasible that the people still utilise the countryside for collecting berries, incl those that can be stored for the winter (although berry seeds should also remain to be found). So the situation for larger farming settlements may not be drastically different from HG life.

    Also, seeding/planting/replanting is the basis of agriculture, so we can assume this was used for any edible plants.

    I read an article on vineyards/orchards in Pompeii where they were able to identify remains of roots/stumps. But the conditions there were quite special though. Also, high level of specific pollen was interpreted as a sign of cultivation on that site.

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    There is some interesting information here:

    Snoddy et al, Scurvy at the agricultural transition in the Atacama desert (ca 3600–3200 BP): nutritional stress at the maternal-foetal interface?, 2017

    They do find significant signs of deficiencies, but hesitate to attribute these to diet alone. There is other similar research as well that indicates at least some people did go through periods of vitamin deficiency.

    There is some background info on scurvy there as well - you need to consume less than 10 mg of Vitamin C for several months before the health deteriorates. That is a long enough period to survive the winter in mild climates. The rest of the year, there should be enough greens even in/around larger settlements to make up for any deficiency. I cannot imagine that people would just eat grains and avoid anything green that grows naturally everywhere - dandelions and ground elders for instance.

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    Pine tree needles have a lot of vitamin C. It is said the Native Americans made a tea from the needles.

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    I also do not think that they avoided non-toxic wild plants. There where enough sources of vitamin C rich wild plants in Europe. For example rose hips, they are containing much vitamin C. In the dried state 100 grams containing over 2000% for daily need.
    But I don’t think that a large population can live on collecting wild fruits, because when cities are growing, more fruits are needed and the wild population will soon become over-harvested.
    The same goes for fishing, many Mesolithic populations where bound to aquatic protein sources, but you wont find a population with a higher degree of technology and large population, that can rely on aquatic protein as the only source of animal products.
    In the middle ages herring was a large part of the diet in many North Sea and Baltic countries, but there was also a large sheep and cattle breeding industry, also dairy production.

    There is also an advantage for new settlements when the settlers bring their food sources with them. And they did this with grains, legumes and farm animals, why wouldn't they do this with fruits?
    There is also the problem that I mentioned with the loss of fruits through local fauna, many animals eat wild fruits and when you are looking at fruits in the wild, they often will be populated with insects and snails.

    I worked for decades in the garden and also harvested wild fruits and nuts and I must say often is half of the fruits or nuts of a tree not usable, because it is infested with larvae of various kinds of moths, butterflies and beetles. They will also make the fruits taste ugly and make them vulnerable to mold. Today wild birds where fed at winter by the people, so they don’t eat so much wild fruits like rose hips, but no one fed them in neolithic times so they would have eaten a lot more of the wild flora than today.

    When you farm fruit trees you can protect them and it was also possible to make nets against bird infestation in neolithic times from plant fiber or wool. Smoking against insects was a method to protect plants in the middle ages, many people of the world today know how to drive out insects with smoke. But this all requires the intention to cultivate trees and not only harvesting wild plants.

    If they had fermented plant matter for winter storage, the DNA of that special bacteria, for example lactic acid bacteria, has to be found in vessels.

    Most wild herbs like dandelion are not recommended for long term consumption, because they are containing toxic substances to defend themselves against insects. In the case of dandelion it is Oxalic acid, which leads to kidney stones. Dandelion also contains Taraxacin. There are many plants considered edible in survival books or herbal guides, but no one consumed they in large amounts traditional, because they are not suitable for daily consumption.
    Many of them also irritate the stomach or triggering massive stomach acid production, which leads to gastritis and ulcers.
    Chickweed for example is believed to be consumable and rich in nutrients, but it contains a lot of Saponin that can damage the blood and the intestines, it causes diarrhea.
    Coniferous tree needles are in many cases toxic to deadly, some species can be consumed if they where very young in spring as sprouts. But they also containing carcinogenic substances and causing gastritis.
    Usually plants that are not domesticated are containing toxins to defend against being eaten. The exception are plant parts like fruits, which have evolved to be eaten by (often specialized) animals to become spread. But some fruits are toxic to many species of animals, to prevent being eatenby the wrong species which does not fit the criteria for spread.

    If you want to detoxify plant matter, you have to cook, ferment or soak it, but that doesn't work for all kinds of plants and toxins.

    So I am skeptic wit the idea that a large neolithic settlement can get enough vitamin C through harvesting wild plants alone.

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    Doggerland, have a look at the Allium family (onions, leeks etc) and consider the possibility of small kitchen gardens inside the city.

    Cultivation of rosehips, wild apples etc next to houses also seems plausible.

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    As to long term health effects that are recent knowledge, I would assume these would just contribute to a shorter lifespan for some people.

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    The Wikipedia article on Çatalhöyük mentions the growing of peas and fruit harvesting in nearby hills. Sadly with no immediate source reference.

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    The Wikipedia article on Mehrgarh mentions jujube fruit cultivation.

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    I found an interesting paper about plant use in Neolithic settlements, German language:https://www.researchgate.net/publica...er_Bandkeramik

    There are records of many seeds and pollen of arctium lappa (Edible Burdock) in Linear Pottery village wells. The authors think that this is a sign of cultivation.

    So that's interesting, because many parts of the plant are edible and its cultivation is documented in roman era and middle ages. It is also part of the diet in Asian countries today:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctium_lappa

    It is also speculated that Phisalis was cultivated, because the seeds where found in the settlements and it was not part of the local flora around the settlement:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Physalis

    Turnip/Cabbage pollen is documented, but no deeper description about signs of cultivation or wild use. The problem with brassica plants is that it is not easy to differentiate between wild and cultivated plants, also they can hybridize very fast between different variations and wild type.

    48% of plant species that had been documented around the Linear Pottery settlements are usableby humans, as medicine, for food or to make clothes and other textiles.

    Interestingly they also used taxus seeds to extract poison, perhaps for hunting or poisonous bait.

    I know many of the mentioned wild plants that had been used for food from the work in my own garden, they appear if a field is harvested and stands idle.
    They cultivate themselves, even if you don’t want them to do this, so they are always present, if you doing field work. So the bigger the field, the more of them you will get. They are very hardy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Doggerland View Post
    I found an interesting paper about plant use in Neolithic settlements, German language:
    That’s a good find. In the conclusion, they also mention that foraging remained an important activity when farming required less time, e.g. in the winter and spring. Vitamins and minerals are specifically mentioned, as well as some wikd berries in their selection of plants.

    Long term preservation of berries inside honey seems plausible, this would create a jam of sorts. There may have been other sources of sugar as well, through boiling tree saps for instance.

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    It's an amazing viewpoint, thanks for sharing it!

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    Maixner et al (2021) Hallstatt miners consumed blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age and retained a non-Westernized gut microbiome until the Baroque period

    We subjected human paleofeces dating from the Bronze Age to the Baroque period (18th century AD) to in-depth microscopic, metagenomic, and proteomic analyses. The paleofeces were preserved in the underground salt mines of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hallstatt in Austria. This allowed us to reconstruct the diet of the former population and gain insights into their ancient gut microbiome composition. Our dietary survey identified bran and glumes of different cereals as some of the most prevalent plant fragments. This highly fibrous, carbohydrate-rich diet was supplemented with proteins from broad beans and occasionally with fruits, nuts, or animal food products. Due to these traditional dietary habits, all ancient miners up to the Baroque period have gut microbiome structures akin to modern non-Westernized individuals whose diets are also mainly composed of unprocessed foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. This may indicate a shift in the gut community composition of modern Westernized populations due to quite recent dietary and lifestyle changes. When we extended our microbial survey to fungi present in the paleofeces, in one of the Iron Age samples, we observed a high abundance of Penicillium roqueforti and Saccharomyces cerevisiae DNA. Genome-wide analysis indicates that both fungi were involved in food fermentation and provides the first molecular evidence for blue cheese and beer consumption in Iron Age Europe.

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