New Research Reveals Key Role of Olive Oil in Ancient Roman Diets

Using new investigative techniques, researchers from the University of Kent determined that olive oil constituted 20 percent of caloric intake among residents of one Roman city.

Sep. 16, 2021
By Paolo DeAndreis

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An essen­tial ingre­di­ent and an unmatched tool to pre­serve food­stuff, olives and olive oil played a cen­tral role in the days of ancient Herculaneum in what is today Naples.

Now, research has con­firmed that aver­age olive oil con­sump­tion for each inhab­i­tant could reach up to 20 liters per year.

If com­pared to meat, fish and cere­als, olive oil com­prised almost one-fourth of over­all food con­sump­tion.- Silvia Soncin, bioar­chae­ol­ogy researcher, University of York

It was the main source of fat for them and it was widely used to store sea­sonal food to eat at a later date,” Silvia Soncin, a bioar­chae­ol­ogy researcher at the University of York and lead author of the study, told Olive Oil Times.

See Also: Sicily’s Monumental Olive Trees Provide Window Into Island’s History

Olives were abun­dant in the whole area and offered [locals] about 20 per­cent of their daily calo­rie intake,” she added.

However, this all ended on August 24, 79 C.E. when Mount Vesuvius inter­rupted its cen­turies-long dor­mancy and under­went one of the most destruc­tive erup­tions in human his­tory.

In 30 hours, its vio­lent out­break buried the nearby towns of Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum under four cubic kilo­me­ters of burn­ing pumice and hot ashes.

Of the 2,000 Romans who per­ished in the vol­canic dis­as­ter, more than 300 tried to sur­vive by flee­ing to the Herculaneum beach. There, on the beach­front and in nearby stone vaults, they were enveloped by a 500 ºC gas dis­charge that quickly killed them and vapor­ized their tis­sues.

Many skele­tons of the vic­tims found on the site helped researchers in their effort to inves­ti­gate exactly what hap­pened and what their ear­lier life was like.

The lat­est research on those well-pre­served bones went even deeper and offered new clues to the role of olive oil in the diet of the Herculaneum res­i­dents at the time.

According to the researchers, the key to the new find­ings was the tech­nique that deter­mines the sta­ble iso­tope val­ues of amino acids from bone col­la­gen. Deploying Bayesian mod­els that incor­po­rate knowl­edge of pro­tein syn­the­sis, researchers had the chance to iden­tify with unprece­dent­edly high res­o­lu­tion the diet of 17 adults.

We made a ten­ta­tive approach to deter­mine olive oil intake, we really wanted to see how far we could go with our method­ol­ogy,” Soncin said. The chal­lenge is due to the fact that the bone col­la­gen analy­sis mostly high­lights the pro­tein por­tion while we had to focus on fatty acids.”

The researchers then focused on a few amino acids, which the human body processes when deriv­ing from macro-nutri­ents such as olive oil.

Researchers believe that males used to eat 50 per­cent more seafood than females. Proteins were obtained by men mostly from cere­als, while females ate more ani­mal prod­ucts, veg­eta­bles and fruits.

See Also: Pottery Shards in Croatia Reveal Roman Olive Oil and Military History

The high-res­o­lu­tion tech­nique allowed us to focus on the con­sump­tion of four major food cat­e­gories: cere­als, ani­mal meat, fish and olive oil,” Soncin said.

The sci­en­tists believe that most fish­ing and mar­itime activ­i­ties were done by males. They were the ones to occupy the most priv­i­leged posi­tions in soci­ety and, as slaves, were freed at an ear­lier age.

If com­pared to meat, fish and cere­als, olive oil com­prised almost one-fourth of food over­all con­sump­tion,” Soncin said. It might seem a lot when com­pared to today’s con­sump­tion quan­ti­ties, but our find­ings coin­cide with what Romans his­to­ri­ans, such as Pliny, wrote and what mod­ern Roman econ­omy his­to­ri­ans believe.”

Soncin also cited pre­vi­ous stud­ies, such as that of Erica Rowan from Oxford University, which focused on Herculaneum’s waste and sewage sys­tems.

So many olive dru­pes were found car­bonized there, which hints at the fact that the res­i­dents used olive branches to fuel the fire, which also tells us how abun­dant the olive tree was in the area at the time,” Soncin said.

The sci­en­tists said that Herculaneum res­i­dents used to eat more fish and seafood than adher­ents of a Mediterranean diet con­sume, in which ani­mal prod­ucts play a more rel­e­vant role.

The remains… offer a unique oppor­tu­nity to exam­ine the lifestyles across an ancient com­mu­nity who lived and died together,” said Oliver Craig, the direc­tor of the university’s bioar­chae­ol­ogy pro­gram. Historical sources often allude to dif­fer­en­tial access to food­stuffs across Roman soci­ety but rarely pro­vide direct or quan­ti­ta­tive infor­ma­tion.”

We found sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in the pro­por­tions of marine and ter­res­trial foods con­sumed between males and females, imply­ing that access to food was dif­fer­en­ti­ated accord­ing to gen­der,” he added.

According to the university’s bioar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment, the new approach pro­vided dietary data of suf­fi­cient pre­ci­sion for com­par­i­son with assess­ments of food sup­ply to mod­ern pop­u­la­tions, open­ing up the pos­si­bil­ity of bench­mark­ing ancient diets against con­tem­po­rary set­tings where the con­se­quences for health are bet­ter under­stood.”





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