New research proves an even earlier milling start

by Morton Sosland
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No food industry has greater reason for pride in its long history of providing sustenance to humankind than flour milling. With some humor intertwined with other human activities, the claim is often heard that milling is the world’s oldest or second oldest business. Archaeology exhibits include mortar and pestle devices as evidence that primitive humans knew how to grind grain into flour, an activity usually tied to the first crop cultivation in the Middle East. Most research about pre-history food has focused on the likelihood of plants not being important to the diet until 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. It has been believed that early people subsisted on meat. Those views are being revised by research pointing to flour being milled 30,000 years ago. This is a finding adding luster to milling’s longstanding importance in the diet.

The newest finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reflect research conducted at three European archaeological sites, in Italy, in Russia and in the Czech Republic. The main researcher on the project is Anna Revedin, professor on the staff of the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History in Florence. She was joined by experts from European universities. These scientists investigated the belief that Paleolithic diets were meat-based, a conclusion derived from studies showing early people as hunters. Prior work on Paleolithic lives also was influenced by studies of bone chemistry and dental microwear that seemed to affirm the overwhelming role of meat.

That opinion is now on the verge of dramatic change due to starch granules from various wild plants being found on the surfaces of grinding tools. The importance of this is underscored by the statement that food processing, “and possibly the production of flour,” was “a common practice, widespread across Europe from at least 30,000 years ago.” The new research paper adds, “It is likely that high energy content plant foods were available and were used as components of the food economy of these mobile hunter-gatherers.”

Wheat, as the raw material of flour, does not appear for millennia after this first milling. Microscopic examinations indicate that narrow leaf cattail might have been the primary material along with various grasses that are easy to grind and were known to grow in environments similar to those ancient sites. Another likely raw material was ferns with a starch-rich root that is easy to grind. The point also is stressed that the material found on the grinding implements is only the last used and might not be the major source. Indeed, this earliest “flour” was made from numerous plant species.

Grinding itself was done on mortar and pestle. Analysis of use-wear finds that grinding and pounding of wild food plants were performed early in the Upper Paleolithic. What is called “cattail rhizome flour” would have been an excellent source of energy to these early people, the researchers conclude. The plants also supplied protein and dietary fiber. Milling was a multi-step process that included root peeling, drying and then grinding. After this, the flour needed to be cooked (not necessarily baked) for well-being and to make calories available. “Raw food does not supply sufficient calories,” it is stated. The researchers conclude that people across Europe some 30,000 years ago knew how to mill starch-rich portions of edible plants along with having “the ability to transform them to produce a complex dried product (flour).”

In contrast to the belief that meat was the primary early food, the research shows that knowing how to make flour gave Paleolithic people greater independence from environmental and seasonal fluctuations. That milled flour contributed significantly to the survival and prospering of early human beings should not only be a source of pride for modern-day milling. It also should spur the industry to capture a similar role in what is a totally different, but still highly challenging, human environment.