Vegetarian since the Middle Ages?

Bones of people of the early modern times indicate their nutrition and environment

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Meat or vegetable diet in the early modern times, this was mostly a question of prosperity and not the conscious diet. Now an anthropologist has succeeded in drawing conclusions about the exact living conditions of people in northeastern Germany by analyzing bones.


"Good nutrition was not equated with the balanced diet of today, but primarily with the consumption of animal products - and the Middle Ages was regarded as a marriage of meat consumption, " says Diana Peitel of the Institute of Human Biology and Anthropology of the free University of Berlin. "In the early modern period, however, there was a population explosion, so that less grazing land was available for livestock. So far, it has been confirmed that herbal diet has become increasingly important. "

But for some at that time relatively sparsely populated areas of Brandenburg and parts of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, this was probably not. For in those areas lived between the 16th and 19th centuries those populations whose bones Diana Peitel subjected to a chemical analysis to reconstruct the diet of these early modern humans. Consciously, she chose very different habitats. One of the populations came from the rural village of Tasdorf, another from the city of Brandenburg an der Havel, and the last from the coastal town of Anklam in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Bone composition crucial

"The diet affects the exact chemical composition of the bones, " explains Peitel. "With the help of these values ​​can be concluded in the most favorable case on the food, which has taken the man to himself." Particularly meaningful are the proportions of the elements carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. "They occur in animal and vegetable products in varying amounts, " says the anthropologist. "When they are taken in, the values ​​of the bones adapt. By comparison with data from purely herbivorous and exclusively carnivorous animals, human bones can be interpreted accordingly. "Display

It showed that vegetable and animal products were on the menu of all three populations. But the Brandenburgers could afford much more meat than, say, the Tasdorfs - an indication of the more favorable living conditions of the city dwellers.

Poison and pollutants are distributed differently

Paradoxically, their better economic position is also confirmed by the pollutant load on the bones. Because even if in no case toxins were detected in potentially dangerous quantities, especially the differences in the load provide valuable insights into the respective living conditions. Thus, for example, significantly higher arsenic values ​​were found in the Brandenburgers than in the Tasdorfs, for example.

City dwellers may have had better access to medicines that were often fortified with the poison - or they just drank more wine. The stored in barrels that were cleaned with arsenic. But even with the Tasdorfs, the trace element was found in the bones, preferably in males. They could have been poisoned when they came into contact with seeds because they were treated with arsenic to protect them from insects. "Women's bones, on the other hand, showed higher cadmium levels, " reports Peitel. "That could come from the smoke of the hearth fire, to which women were probably more exposed."

Conclusion on living conditions

In Tasdorf children's bones report a worsening of life at the age of five to six years, when they were probably used for physical labor. In Brandenburg, on the other hand, admission to adult life did not take place until six to ten years. Then the children were apprenticed and had to live in the Master's house. This was often associated with hard work, corporal punishment and poor diet. The severity of these crises can still be seen in the child's bones today. The traces also show that most survived. The high infant mortality rate of up to 50 percent, which is known from early modern times, is probably more due to a lack of hygiene than to nutrition, also because most children are probably at least in their first two years of life were breastfed.

Overall, the supply situation of all three populations was surprisingly good, although the Thirty Years War was wetting and Anklam was plagued several times by the plague. However, these factors probably contributed to the densely populated areas being affected, so that extensive pastures for livestock farming were available as suppliers of protein-rich foods. "My data shows that a larger data base should be created for the hitherto barely studied eastern part of Germany, and especially for the early modern era, " says Peitel. Only in this way can we gain insights into the special living conditions of the populations at the time.

(idw - Free University Berlin, 20.04.2007 - AHE)