Cheerios literally popped into existence in 1941 when a physicist at General Mills developed a “puffing gun” that created CheeriOats, as the cereal was first called. But long before the oaty little O’s came into existence, Bronze-age Austrians were producing something similar around 900 B.C. by hand, though researchers aren’t quite sure if those barley and wheat dough rings were for nomming, weaving or praising the gods.
The early O’s come from a site in Austria called Stillfried an der March, an ancient hill fort first excavated in 1978 that was found to contain about 100 grain storage pits. Inside one of the pits, archaeologists found three tiny charred remains of the grain-rings, each a little more than an inch in diameter, along with a dozen larger but similarly ring-shaped loom weights.
It wasn’t until recently that archaeologists took a closer look at the charred organic rings, using radiocarbon dating and scanning electron microscope imaging. It turned out that the tiny doughnuts were made from finely ground wheat and barley mixed with water to form a paste. The rings either weren't baked or were baked at extremely low temperatures just to dry them out. The research appears in the journal PLOS One.
So what, exactly, are the dough rings for? Andreas Heiss, lead author of the study from the Austrian Archaeological Institute, tells Aristos Georgiu at Newsweek they do resemble some modern baked goods, including the tiny bagel-like tarallini eaten in southern Italy and sushki, tiny little bread rings popular in Eastern Europe and Russia. However, those products are baked (not to mention more appetizing than the wheat-paste rings).
The researchers note that producing the little pieces of cereal would have been time consuming, which puts them at odds with most of the other grain processing techniques used at the site. They probably weren’t used as loom weights, either, due to their slightness and relatively brittle design; loom weights are also more easily crafted from clay.
Instead, the working theory is that the cereal bits had a ritual function. “Although the rings were food items, the overall unusual find assemblage suggests that there must have been some further symbolic meaning to them—the assemblage had been deliberately deposited,” Heiss tells Georgiu. “Furthermore, the similarity in shape between the functional clay rings and the dough rings suggests that maybe the latter had been imitations of the clay loom weights.”
Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura reports that loom weights were often placed in Bronze Age graves for the deceased to take with them into the afterlife. In fact, according to the study, not all of the grain storage pits at Stillfried held just grain. One contained seven bodies. It’s possible the ancient Cheerios were placed in a grave, or at least intended for a grave, perhaps to provide a symbolic snack on the way to the underworld.
In the paper, the researchers say it’s hard to imagine any practical purpose the dough rings may have had. And it’s difficult to know exactly when and why they were burned. Bread products were part of many sacrificial offerings from the ancient world, so they could have been part of a ritual. It's also possible they were inside a house that accidentally burned down.
Heiss and his team say the upshot of their study isn’t that ancient people made inedible cereal millennia ago. It’s that remains of organic products, like cereals or baked goods, may go unnoticed by archaeologists. Going forward, they suggest that researchers sample charred areas, especially when they are found in odd contexts, to see if there are signs of ancient grains or grain processing. “Prehistoric bakers produced so much more than just bread,” Heiss says in a press release.
In fact, just a few tiny bits of grain can alter what we know about entire cultures. For instance, Stone Age people in southern Finland were believed to subsist almost exclusively on seals. But a study from April revealing the discovery of a few grains of barley and wheat, along with apple seeds, hazelnut shells, and tubers show they engaged in small-scale farming 5,000 years ago. It also suggests they were in contact with other ancient groups spreading across Europe, maybe even ones that produced edible cereal.