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Early Europeans Were Dining On Seaweed 3,000 Years Before It Became A Trendy Superfood

New research suggests our ancestors were ahead of the curve in consuming seaweed and freshwater plants.

Early Europeans were dining on seaweed 3,000 years before it became a delicacy in the Far East, according to new research.

From Orkney to Spain, our ancestors were also eating freshwater plants as well as the trendy superfood 8,000 years ago, suggests the Scottish study,

Seaweed has developed a reputation in more recent times as a “superfood” – lauded for its health benefits and sustainability.

But the new study suggests that our ancestors were well ahead of the curve.

Researchers say they have found “definitive” archaeological evidence that seaweeds and other local freshwater plants were eaten in the Mesolithic period, through the Neolithic transition to farming and into the Early Middle Ages.

The stone building is Isbister in Orkney, also known as Tomb of the Eagles where some of the seaweed samples analyzed in the study came from. PHOTO BY PROFESSOR KAREN HARDY/SWNS  

They said the findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that the foodstuff, now rarely eaten in Europe, only became marginal much more recently.

The study reveals that while aquatic resources were exploited, the archaeological evidence for seaweed is only rarely recorded – and is almost always considered in terms of non-edible uses such as fuel, food wrappings or fertilizers.

Historical accounts report laws related to the collection of seaweed in Iceland, Brittany and Ireland dating to the 10th Century, while sea kale is mentioned by the Roman author Pliny as a sailor’s anti-scurvy remedy.

By the 18th Century, seaweed was considered as famine food, and although it and freshwater aquatic plants continue to be economically important in parts of Asia, both nutritionally and medicinally, there is little consumption in Europe.

The team, led by archaeologists from the Universities of Glasgow and York, examined biomarkers extracted from dental calculus from 74 individuals from 28 archaeological sites across Europe, from north Scotland to southern Spain.

They found “direct evidence for widespread consumption of seaweed and submerged aquatic and freshwater plants.”

Samples, where biomolecular evidence survived, revealed consumption of red, green or brown seaweeds, or freshwater aquatic plants, with one sample from Orkney also containing evidence for a Brassica, most likely sea kale.

There are around 10,000 different species of seaweed in the world, but only 145 species are eaten today, principally in Asia.

The researchers hope that their study will highlight the potential for including more seaweeds and other local freshwater plants in our diets today.

Glasgow University Professor Karen Hardy, Principal Investigator of the Powerful Plants project, said: “Today, seaweed and freshwater aquatic plants are virtually absent from traditional, western diets.

“Their marginalization as they gradually changed from food to famine resources and animal fodder, probably occurred over a long period of time, as has also been detected elsewhere with some plants.

“Our study also highlights the potential for rediscovery of alternative, local, sustainable food resources that may contribute to addressing the negative health and environmental effects of over-dependence on a small number of mass-produced agricultural products that is a dominant feature of much of today’s western diet, and indeed the global long-distance food supply more generally.

The stone building is Isbister in Orkney, also known as Tomb of the Eagles where some of the seaweed samples analyzed in the study came from. PHOTO BY PROFESSOR KAREN HARDY/SWNS  

“It is very exciting to be able to show definitively that seaweeds and other local freshwater plants were eaten across a long period in our European past.”

Study co-author Dr. Stephen Buckley, of the University of York, said: “The biomolecular evidence in this study is over 3,000 years earlier than historical evidence in the Far East.

“Not only does this new evidence show that seaweed was being consumed in Europe during the Mesolithic Period around 8,000 years ago when marine resources were known to have been exploited, but that it continued into the Neolithic when it is usually assumed that the introduction of farming led to the abandonment of marine dietary resources.”

He added: “This strongly suggests that the nutritional benefits of seaweed were sufficiently well understood by these ancient populations that they maintained their dietary link with the sea.”

Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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