Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 17, Supplement 1, pp 19–27 | Cite as

Advances in plant food processing in the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic and implications for improved edibility and nutrient bioaccessibility: an experimental assessment of Bolboschoenus maritimus (L.) Palla (sea club-rush)

  • Michèle M. WollstonecroftEmail author
  • Peter R. Ellis
  • Gordon C. Hillman
  • Dorian Q. Fuller
Original Article


This paper examines how plant food processing techniques developed by hunter-gatherers during the Near Eastern Epipalaeolithic (ca. 23970–11990 cal b.p.) may have influenced species selection, eating habits and access to critical nutrients. A case study is presented that investigates how pulverising and thermal treatments affect the tubers of Bolboschoenus maritimus (L.) Palla (sea club-rush), a plant that is frequently recovered from ancient sites in the Levant and Anatolia. A range of microscopy techniques was employed to observe the changes in tuber microstructure caused by individual processing techniques. The results show that pulverising is a necessary step in transforming these tubers into edible products because it disrupts the cell walls, facilitating tissue softening and access to intracellular nutrients. Heating, while necessary to cook the intracellular starch, does not promote tissue softening in the tubers of this species. The results demonstrate how the biologically inherited functional properties of a species interact with specific food processing techniques to promote or hinder its edibility and nutrient bioaccessibility.


Bioavailability Epipalaeolithic Food processing Hunter-gatherer Late Pleistocene Near East 



The authors thank Tony Brain and John Pacy of King’s College London for assistance with the microscopy, Tina van Gaalen for assistance with the micrographs and figure formatting and Delwen Samuel for useful discussion of the results of the experiments. Particular thanks are given to our two anonymous reviewers for their insightful and detailed comments. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition kindly permitted the use of the Ellis et al. (2004) graphic (Fig. 1, above). This study is part of MW’s doctoral research which was funded by a University College London Graduate School Research Scholarship, the Overseas Research Students Award (ORS) Program, the University of London Central Research Fund, and The Institute of Archaeology (UCL).

Supplementary material

334_2008_162_MOESM1_ESM.doc (51 kb)
Table 1 Late Pleistocene and early Holocene sites in southwest Asia where the tubers and seeds of Bolboschoenus maritimus/Scirpus maritimus and other Scirpus species have been found. Scirpus other than SCR are included here to account for possible mis-identifications due to taxonomic problems. (T) = Tubers, (S) = Seeds. References: Colledge (2001), Hather (1995), Hillman, Madeyska and Hather (1989), Martinoli and Jacomet (2004), and the database compiled as part of AHRB/C funded project, based at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL (2001-4): ‘The origin and spread of Neolithic plant economies in the Near East and Europe’ (PIs: S. Shennan and J. Conolly; RA: S. Colledge) (DOC 51 kb)
334_2008_162_MOESM2_ESM.doc (30 kb)
Table 2 Summary of thermal processing techniques: methods, apparatus, cooking time and temperatures. Temperatures were measured with an RS 53 K-type handheld digital thermometer attached to an external thermocouple, with a range of −50°C to 1,300°C (DOC 30 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michèle M. Wollstonecroft
    • 1
    Email author
  • Peter R. Ellis
    • 2
  • Gordon C. Hillman
    • 1
  • Dorian Q. Fuller
    • 1
  1. 1.The Institute of ArchaeologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Biopolymers Group, Department of Biochemistry, Nutritional Sciences DivisionKing’s College LondonLondonUK

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