Archaeologists Discover Burnt Porridge Inside a 5,000-Year-Old Clay Pot

The leftovers shed new light on the dietary habits of residents of a village in Germany

5,000-year-old ceramic vessal
This 5,000-year-old ceramic vessel contains burnt food remnants that are helping scientists develop a more comprehensive understanding of food preparation in the region. Sara Jagiolla / Kiel University.

Researchers in Germany have found remnants of 5,000-year-old burnt porridge inside a ceramic pot.

The vessel was unearthed at a Neolithic settlement known as Oldenburg LA 77. Historians say the site was once home to one of the oldest villages in the German region of Schleswig-Holstein.

“As soon as we looked inside the person’s cooking pot, it was obvious that something went wrong,” Lucy Kubiak-Martens, an archaeobotanist with the Dutch research firm BIAX Consult, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.

The problem? Whoever attempted to make their meal that day must have cooked it for a bit too long, scorching the grains inside.

Kubiak-Martens is the lead author of a recent study published in the journal PLOS One. The research was a collaboration between Kiel University and Kenaz Consult and Laboratory, both in Germany, and BIAX Consult.

ancient Schleswig-Holstein
An illustration depicting village life in the region of Schleswig-Holstein Susanne Beyer / Kiel University

The team used electron microscopy to learn about the chemical composition of the food residue. Although burning the food may have ruined someone’s meal thousands of years ago, it also helped preserve the residue, allowing today’s researchers to get a better look.

“While the animal fats are absorbed into the ceramic and leave a signal there, the plant food components can only be detected in the burnt food crust,” says Kubiak-Martens in a statement from Kiel University.

The researchers found that the leftovers contain barley and emmer grains, as well as seeds from a white goosefoot plant. They also learned that the barley was harvested and prepared in a style similar to that of contemporary German farmers. The wheat appears to have been processed in a sprouted state, which has “several advantages over unsprouted grain,” according to the study.

For example, foods made from sprouted gains “have a distinctly sweet and nutty flavor compared with those made from unsprouted grains, most likely due to the conversion of starches into simpler sugars during the sprouting process.” Sprouted gains also have nutritional benefits, such as higher levels of important vitamins like iron and vitamin C, and they are easier to digest.

Image of an ancient grain
A microscopic image of a charred ancient grain found inside the ceramic pot Lucy Kubiak-Martens / Biax Consult

“Food in the Neolithic Age was therefore by no means bland, but rather varied,” per the statement. “People had a highly differentiated sense of taste and attached great importance to good flavor.”

Previously, researchers thought the pot held dairy products. The new analysis revealed that the leftovers were actually a “sophisticated preparation of plant-based foodstuffs.” The team hopes their findings will help provide a more comprehensive understanding of dietary habits in the region.

“[This cooking incident] not only shows us the last step in someone’s daily routine of preparing meals but also the last cooking event using this pot,” Kubiak-Martens tells Live Science. “This is much more than just a charred grain. We are seeing how people prepared their daily meals thousands of years ago.”

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