Researchers found a unique way to identify what people ate thousands of years ago.
They analyzed proteins from 5,000-year-old copper-alloy cauldrons to see what animals people cooked.
Blood, milk, and muscle from cattle, goats, or sheep were all preserved in the pots.
About 5,000 years ago, ancient cooks were creating feasts out of cattle, deer, and milk from sheep or goats.
They could've been eating their meat and dairy separately or mixing it all together.
The evidence for the meals comes from proteins found in skillfully made Bronze Age pots that were "used to cook a large amount of meat with some milk that we suggest was in the form of a stew," Shevan Wilkin told Insider in an email. They're some of the earliest known metal cooking cauldrons.
Wilkin and Viktor Trifonov co-authored the study, which appeared in the journal iScience this month.
Researchers have tried studying ancient dietary habits from ceramics dishes before with little success, but Wilkin thinks the antimicrobial properties of the copper-alloy cauldrons helped preserve the ancient biomolecules.
"This finding was incredibly exciting, as it opens the possibility of many more studies into the foods and drinks prepared, served, or consumed from metallic cups, bowls, or larger vessels," she said.
Cattle, sheep, and goat could have all been on the menu
Taking samples from seven copper-alloy cauldrons allowed the researchers to get some specific dietary information from proteins that, remarkably, still remained in the vessels 5,000 years later.
The pots contained blood, muscle, and milk proteins, representing several different types of animals. Heat shock protein beta-1, abundant in muscle tissue, helps protect cells from infection and inflammation.
An amino acid sequence in the tissue protein researchers identified belongs to the bovine subfamily or deer genus Cervus. The Bronze Age chefs could have been making cow, yak, water buffalo, or wild deer.
Wilkin and Trifonov also found three different blood proteins, including one specific to sheep or goats. The milk proteins show the Maykop people were also getting their dairy from these animals.
One cauldron had both blood and milk proteins. The researchers said the pot's owners may have cooked the meat and dairy together, but it's impossible to tell for sure.
It's also unknown if the stew contained grains or other crops.
"We don't learn anything about the plants that they might have been cooking in there," said Christine Hastorf, director of the Archaeological Research Facility at the University of California, Berkeley, who wasn't involved in the study.
She notes that stews often contain vegetables, but animal proteins are sturdier and more likely to survive.
Part of a communal kitchen
Wilkin believes creating these pots would have been a complicated process. "This is one of the earliest known cauldrons to date," she said. "It would have taken a lot of knowledge and skill to make it."
Based on radiocarbon dating, the pots are from between 3,520 to 3,350 BCE, during the Maykop period and were found in a few burial sites east of the Black Sea.
Procuring the necessary metal and finding someone skilled enough to craft the pot meant not everyone could have one. "The cauldrons are associated exclusively with the burials of the elite," Trifonov said.
Yet the capacity of the pots — the largest had a volume of 70 liters — indicates the Maykop people used them for communal cooking.
"From the size, it is clear that this was a very large meal cooked for many people, rather than for a small family or individual," Wilkin said.
Other types of evidence of Bronze Age-era diets help verify the researchers' protein results, Wilkin said. Cattle, sheep, goat, and deer bones are common at Maykop sites. Dental deposits from contemporary human remains reveal they consumed a lot of dairy products.
Going forward, Wilkin thinks analyzing proteins from metal cooking vessels could lead to new discoveries in other locations, too.
"This can really open up studies of how people cooked and served food across time and space, and that is very exciting," she said.
Hastorf agrees: "These are the studies that are going to move us forward on real foodways in the past," she said. "There's no doubt."
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