Seaweed: A Longstanding European Culinary Tradition Unveiled by Researchers

by Ella

Seaweed, often associated with eastern cuisine and coastal delicacies, has recently been unveiled as a common food source in the diet of European populations over thousands of years. Researchers have discovered compelling evidence of seaweed consumption by examining human teeth at sites stretching from Spain to Lithuania. This dietary practice has been found to span a significant period, dating back to around 6400 BC and extending into the early middle ages.

This revelation comes as a surprise, as the traditional understanding within the field of archaeology suggested that the rise of farming during the neolithic period led to the abandonment of aquatic resources, including seaweed, as a primary food source. Furthermore, by the 18th century, seaweed was generally considered a last-resort food during times of famine.


Karen Hardy, a co-author of the study and a professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Glasgow, emphasized the novelty of this discovery, stating, “The idea of it being a foodstuff really hasn’t emerged in Europe at all, actually.”


The research team, by analyzing samples of dental calculus, commonly referred to as tartar, extracted from the remains of 74 individuals at 28 archaeological sites across Europe, uncovered concrete evidence of seaweed consumption. These sites spanned a wide geographical range, extending from southern Spain to northern Scotland, covering a timeframe ranging from 6400 BC to the 12th century AD.


Of the 74 individuals, 37 samples obtained from 33 of them were found to contain biomarkers. These biomarkers offered insights into their dietary habits, with 26 samples providing clear chemical evidence of the consumption of foods like seaweed and pondweed. Intriguingly, one sample indicated the consumption of sea kale, a plant historically known as a remedy for scurvy among sailors, as noted by Pliny.


Remarkably, the researchers were even able to identify the specific types and colors of seaweed that were consumed in various instances. For example, at a site in Isbister, Orkney, dating back to the middle to late neolithic period (3200-2800 BC), it was determined that red seaweed was part of the diet.

This newfound evidence suggests that while foods like seaweed and pondweed are rarely part of modern European diets, they were once integral components of culinary traditions. The study highlights the dynamic nature of dietary habits and the ways in which food sources have evolved over time.



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