3rd course: Cereal and fern (and meat and fat…) **

Image: Carl Lindman / Wikipedia

Teeth are one source of evidence for food preferences [see previous course/post], but how can you be sure that what is found in the mouth is actually swallowed into the digestive tract proper? Arguably better is the contents of the stomach. That is the source examined by Frank Maixner et al., for Ötzi, the individual exhumed from an Alpine glacier in 1991 where he had lain apparently undisturbed for approx. 5,300 years.

Yet another ‘post-mortem’ analysis [how many such indignities must one human being suffer?], this time of the contents of the recently-located stomach of the ‘iceman’ *, revealed a high-fat, high-calorie ‘meal’. Although this was a balanced diet of at least three of the five major food groups – fat from Alpine ibex (Capra ibex), meat from red deer (Cervus elaphus; ‘protein’), and einkorn (Triticum monococum ‘carbohydrates’) – the fat content, at 50% of the meal, is extremely high. However, this is probably justified on the grounds that fat can help to give the additional calorie boost needed to an individual trying to keep warm in such hostile and very cold conditions. But, the most curious aspect of the stomach contents is the presence of bracken [Pteridium aquilinum], as an “abundance of spores and sporangia”.

Although widely eaten nowadays by many people – e.g. in China – it contains a potent cancer-causing compound, ptaquiloside. It’s been suggested that bracken fronds may have wrapped some of the other foodstuffs and its spores were ingested accidentally. But, since bracken is deliberately consumed by humans today, it is possible – i.e. not inconceivable – that it was an intentional part of Ötzi’s ancient diet. We’ll probably never know for sure, but, as Maixner et al. proudly conclude, “detection of the Iceman’s stomach content with its pristine yet undigested food mix, provides the unique opportunity to fully reconstruct a Copper Age [or Chalcolithic Period from 4500 to 3500 BC] meal”. But, since, and acknowledgedly, these are the contents of the stomach, how can we know for certain what would have been digested and assimilated and thus contributed to the Iceman’s growth and development? More mysteries to solve…

* In an art-imitating-life kind of way, the 2017 film “Der Mann aus dem Eis” [Iceman] purports to be a ‘biography’ of Ötzi (although neither knowingly authorised nor approved by Ötzi’s heirs…), in particular the events leading up to his death in the European Alps. Curiously, as a tale of bloody revenge featuring frozen landscapes, it has similarities with another film of the same English name. That 2012 film – about assassin Richard Kuklinski  [nicknamed ‘the iceman’] – is also a ‘chilling’ tale of cold-blooded murder but in the USA, and brings a new meaning to the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold“/”cold vengeance”…

** This is the fourth in a 5-item series of ‘plants as food’ articles. The preceding article can be found here. The next article is here.

Further reading

Maixner, F., Turaev, D., Cazenave-Gassiot, A., Janko, M., Krause-Kyora, B., Hoopmann, M. R., … Zink, A. (2018). The Iceman’s Last Meal Consisted of Fat, Wild Meat, and Cereals. Current Biology, 28(14), 2348–2355.e9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.05.067

Cooper, R. (2015). Re-discovering ancient wheat varieties as functional foods. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, 5(3), 138–143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtcme.2015.02.004

Liu, Y., Wujisguleng, W., & Long, C. (2012). Food uses of ferns in China: a review. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae, 81(4), 263–270. https://doi.org/10.5586/asbp.2012.046

Smith, B. L., & Seawright, A. A. (1995). Bracken fern (Pteridium spp.) carcinogenicity and human health—a brief review. Natural Toxins, 3(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1002/nt.2620030102