Flour Was Part of the Human Diet 32,000 Years Ago

A stone pestle inside an Italian cave bears traces of starch from wild oats

Wild oats
Ancient people may have ground up wild oats jollyjoeroger via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The premise of the trendy paleo diet is to mimic the food that early humans ate — which often means foregoing more modern foods like dairy and flour. However, people living during  paleolithic times may have actually enjoyed grain, reports Jeremy Cherfas for NPR

In an cave called Grotta Paglicci, in Puglia, Southern Italy, scientists found a stone grinding tool that appears to have been used to grind flour. Botanist Marta Mariotti Lippi, of the University of Florence in Italy describes the tool as "pale brown and not much bigger than my hand," Cherfas reports. The wear on the stone is consistent with that that would appear if the stone was used to grind seeds into flour.

The finding dates back to 32,000 years ago — although, cereal crops likely weren’t domesticated until 23,000 years ago at the earliest. Mariotti Lippi and her colleagues found grains of starch embedded in the stone tool, most of which likely came from a wild species of oats that grows in Europe.

Cherfas writes:

Most intriguing, many of the starch grains were swollen and partly gelatinized, which is consistent with them being heated before grinding. Because the climate 32,000 years ago was cooler than it is today, seeds gathered in autumn might not have had enough time to dry naturally. Perhaps, Mariotti Lippi speculates, those seeds were first dried over a fire, which would have made them much easier to grind and digest than freshly gathered seeds. And ready-ground flour, she notes, would keep longer and be easier to transport.

Whether the flour may have been used to make bread or some kind of porridge isn’t clear. The researchers published their work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study is only the latest research that indicates there are some flaws in the common perception of paleolithic diets. Previous work shows that sorghum, another cereal grain, could have entered the human diet as early as 105,000 years ago. Other foods not typically thought of as paleo actually are, like hot chocolate. It seems likely that as they are today, paleolithic diets were varied and surprising.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.