The molecules of meals: new insight into Neolithic foodways

Jessica Smyth, Richard P Evershed

Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issue (Academic Journal)peer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)


Details of daily life such as food and drink can be difficult to capture in
prehistory, especially on an island with a temperate climate and covered mainly
by acidic soils: plant remains will only survive through charring or waterlogging,
whilst animal bone frequently dissolves unless calcined. At the
molecular level, however, a host of biochemical and isotopic signatures exist
indicating what our prehistoric antecedents ate and drank. The most robust of
these biomarkers are lipids, commonly found absorbed into the clay matrix of
pottery vessels*the residues of meals sometimes many thousands of years old.
The wet, acidic conditions that accelerate the decay of so much prehistoric
organic matter fortunately preserve these lipid residues exceedingly well. This
paper details the results of a recent programme of molecular and compound-specific
stable isotope analysis on lipids from nearly 500 Irish Neolithic vessels,
providing unparalleled insights into the diet, and food procurement and
processing activities of our earliest farming communities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27-46
Number of pages20
JournalProceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Section C
Early online date20 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015


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