Direct evidence from lipid residue analysis for the routine consumption of millet in Early Medieval Italy

Publication date: August 2018Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 96
Author(s): Giovanna Ganzarolli, Michelle Alexander, Alexandra Chavarria Arnau, Oliver E. Craig
Millets have been cultivated in Europe since the Late Neolithic but, beyond recording their presence, little is known about their use and context of consumption. As a C4 plant, the contribution of millet on diet can be readily identified through stable isotope analysis of human bones. Using this approach, however, previous studies have been unable to distinguish direct consumption of the cereal from the consumption of millet fed animals. Historical evidence suggests that the latter was common practice. To address this issue, we present the first direct evidence for millet consumption in Medieval period using organic residue analysis. Lipid were extracted from 45 pottery vessels from the Episcopal centre in Padua, Northern Italy dating from the 6th to 10th centuries AD. Miliacin, a biomarker for broomcorn millet, was present in many of the cooking vessels tested. Based on the co-occurrence of miliacin with other food derived lipids and the vessel typologies, we suggest that millet was a common culinary ingredient during the Early Medieval period in this region. The earliest evidence dates to the 6th c. AD and notably derives from deposits associated with high status occupation of the site, a surprising result given the common association of these crops as low-status or starvation foods in the historic periods. It is likely that millet was a common cereal staple in human diet during this period in North-eastern Italy and that its use was far less restricted than previously thought. More broadly, our study highlights the efficacy of combining organic residue analysis and stable isotope analysis of bone to relate culinary and dietary information of ancient populations.