Grinding Flour in Upper Palaeolithic Europe (25 000 Years Bp)

Article excerpt


By virtue of the surviving evidence, the diet of Palaeolithic people has been considered primarily carnivorous, and there has been little evidence for the exploitation of plants. The research reported here has identified the remains of starches from Typha and Graminae cf. Brachypodium found on the surface of a Gravettian period grindstone, and draws the conclusion that parts of these plants were being ground into a flour. The survival of traces of perishable starches on such an ancient grindstone suggests an intensive and repeated use. The routine production of a Palaeolithic flour has at least two important implications. Firstly, a food was available which was portable, and had high energy content and good properties of conservation, so allowing hunter-gatherers a greater mobility and autonomy. Secondly, the technical ability to obtain flour from wild plants in the Upper Palaeolithic challenges the idea that the exploitation of wild cereals necessarily began in Pre-Neolithic western Asia.

Archaeological context

The Bilancino settlement in the Mugello area (north-west of Florence, Italy) was discovered in 1992 during the digging of an artificial lake (Aranguren & Revedin 1998), and excavated in 1995-96 by the Archaeological Department of Tuscany (Figure 1). The excavation brought to light an occupation surface of 120[m.sup.2], from which 15 000 artefacts were recovered (Aranguren et al. 2003a). Among about 1600 tools, 65 per cent were classic Noailles burins with fine flaking and notches (Figure 2). The burins were obtained from different groups of raw materials, both local and exotic (Aranguren et al. 2004b), and the chaine operatoire, from knapping to discard, has been worked out in detail (Aranguren & Revedin 2005). The high degree of standardisation in the lithic industry suggests the use of specialised tools for a process which demanded high precision.


On the basis of the lithic industry, the settlement of Bilancino has been ascribed to the Gravettian culture (Noailles facies) (Aranguren & Revedin 2001). Among the three Bilancino AMS dates (Aranguren & Revedin 1997), the most reliable is the oldest one, taken from a domestic hearth, of 25 410 [+ or -] 150 bp (Beta--106549; Aranguren et al. 2001). Palaeoecological analysis suggests that the Bilancino site was a summer camp located in a damp situation, with abundant wetland plants, such as Cyperaceae and reedmace or cat's tail (Typha) (Figure 3) (Aranguren et al. 2003b). Use-wear analysis on Noailles burins has identified the presence of organic residues located on the active edge of the tool. Chemical analysis performed on the residues indicates the presence of carbon and chlorine, suggesting organic materials of vegetal origin (Aranguren et al. 2007). A series of striations and polishing traces were also noted on the burins. These could be replicated experimentally by 40-90 minutes spent cutting Typha and separating its fibres.

The grindstone

Analysis has also been applied to the corpus of pebbles found on the site (Aranguren et al. 2006; in press). The most important of these was a piece of sandstone measuring 13.6 x 9.7 x 6.2cm with one long side flat and the other dished to a maximum depth of around 0.8mm. It had originally been joined to a smaller piece found I. 15m away (Figure 4), the two together measuring 25 x 9.7 x 6.2cm (Figure 5). The original stone--a quartz -feldspar-micaceous sandstone of local origin--had been broken in two with a blow on the edge. The resulting larger fragment had the concave depression on its upper surface, indicating that it had been used as a grindstone, while the smaller no doubt functioned as the grinder.

Grindstones are sporadically attested from the Aurignacian, but it is from the Gravettian that these artefacts become more frequent. The earliest examples have been identified from wear traces rather than their shape (De Beaune 2000), but those from the Epipalaeolithic and the Mesolithic have a decidedly concave surface. …