Cereal breakthrough

Prehistoric grains identified in Swiss Alps lunch box

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

Traces of ancient cereals like wheat, barley and rye have been found in a wooden 'lunch box' abandoned on the Swiss Alps 4,000 years ago. Pic: ©Deposit Photos/lakov
Traces of ancient cereals like wheat, barley and rye have been found in a wooden 'lunch box' abandoned on the Swiss Alps 4,000 years ago. Pic: ©Deposit Photos/lakov
Scientists have discovered a 4,000-year-old ‘lunch box’ – obviously lost by a plucky primitive traveler crossing the Swiss mountains – contains microscopic traces of ancient wheat and rye.

According to Dr Francesco Carrer, an archaeologist from Newcastle University in the UK, people from the Bronze Age took provisions with them on long journeys, as hikers do today.

The Bronze Age wooden box found in the Swiss Alps. Pic Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern
The Bronze Age wooden box found in the Swiss Alps. Pic: Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern

The 7.8 inch wooden box was found near the 8,700 feet summit of the Lötschenpass in 2012, but the results of tests on its contents have only now been published in Scientific Reports.

The project was a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, researchers in Bern and Basel and the universities of York, Newcastle and Oxford in the UK, and Copenhagen in Denmark.

Scientific debut

Findings shed light on the kind of food eaten by prehistoric settlers, which, in this case, could perhaps have been a hearty whole-grain porridge.

It is the first time scientists have used biomarkers to detect ancient cereals.

Though Bronze Age wheat has previously been found in caves, such biomarkers are not preserved well in ancient artifacts.

“There are very few biomarkers for plants … [so] you can imagine the relevance of this study as we now have a new tool for tracking early culinary use of cereal grains,” ​said archaeologist Andre Colonese from the University of York.

Using gas chromatography mass spectrometry, the scientists identified compounds called alkylresorcinols, which are found in whole grains such as wheat, barley and rye.

The birth of agriculture

“This is an extraordinary discovery if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions,"​ added Colonese.

“The molecular marker for grain also helps us explore the beginnings of agriculture,”​ added Dr Jessica Hendy from the Max Planck Institute.

“It will enable us to gather information on when and how wheat spread throughout Europe.”

Where, when, why, what?

Further investigation has found the box has a base made of Swiss pine and a rim of willow, sewn together with twigs of European larch.

It also has a mysterious residue on its surface.

Though researchers cannot determine why the box was left where it was, they speculate it could have belonged to a farmer driving his cattle to high alpine pastures or a trader travelling on what may have been an early trade route between the Bernese Oberland and the Valais.

They may also be able to determine whether the Bronze Age cereal was clean label - a growing trend among consumers today – but what will remain uncertain is if the cereal’s sell-by date is still valid.


New criteria for the molecular identification of cereal grains associated with archaeological artefacts

Andre Carlo Colonese, Jessica Hendy, Alexandre Lucquin, Camilla F. Speller, Matthew J. Collins, Francesco Carrer, Regula Gubler, Marlu Kühn, Roman Fischer and Oliver E. Craig

Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 6633 (2017)


Related topics: Convenience, Ingredients, Milling & Grains

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