Isotope Data from Medieval Belarus Shows Similar Diets in Rural, Urban Populations

A new study published in PLoS ONE is the first to use stable isotope analysis to study the diets of the inhabitants of modern Belarus during the turbulent socio-political transitions of the 11th to 18th centuries CE

Advances in archaeological science are enabling new levels of insight into the daily lives of our ancestors. In recent years, the use of stable isotope analysis has been used in much of western and north-western Europe to examine how the major economic, political, and social changes of the Medieval period impacted various sectors of past populations.

Isotope techniques can be used to take a detailed look at the diets of individuals, comparing what people ate through time and across different sectors of a population.  Much of eastern Europe, however, remains understudied with such techniques, despite going through dramatic social changes. The territory of modern Belarus has, especially remained a relative blank spot on the bioarchaeological map of Europe, though cities such as Polack emerged rapidly as key nodes within a growing economic and religious network.

Now, a new study published in PLoS ONE is the first to use stable isotope analysis to study the diets of the inhabitants of modern Belarus during the turbulent socio-political transitions of the 11th to 18th centuries CE. In the new study, researchers from the University of Warsaw, Polack State University and the Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology applied stable isotope analysis to human and animal bone and tooth collagen from the city of Polack and surrounding rural sites.

The results constitute the first comprehensive isotope dataset from humans and animals from Belarusian archaeological contexts. Overall, and in comparison with the wider eastern European region, the diet in Medieval Belarus relied on C3 terrestrial resources, in which vegetables and cereals like rye and wheat played the major role. The diet did not differ between sexes and showed limited variation over the time between the 11th and the 18th centuries CE.

Contrary to expectations, it appears that animal products were commonly consumed by rural dwellers, but no significant reliance on millet or fish was found, despite the abundance of water resources and the belief that religious fasts were kept very strictly in these lands. A similar low role of fish, despite expectations connected with Christian fasts and local availability, was observed in non-elite sites and some rural coastal areas in Lithuania and Poland.

From the appearance of the first cities and early states in Belarus, the city of Polack was a major hub of trade, politics and culture. Over the course of the second millennium CE, this territory went through dramatic socio-political and cultural changes, being at various times part of such states as Ancient Rus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire. In particular, its incorporation into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, at its height the largest state in Medieval Europe, and described in the literature as a melting pot of ethnicities, religions and cultures, makes the regions important for exploring issues pertaining to identity, equality, human agency, resilience and adaptation to socio-political transitions in the Medieval world.

In contrast to examples from western Europe, the new stable isotope dataset from the Polack region shows that the diets in the city were broadly similar to those in the surrounding villages, and similar to commoners analysed in Poland and Lithuania. When compared with the difference in urban and rural diets for western Europe, this similarity could suggest slightly different economic changes operating in this part of the Medieval world. The differences in diets between elite and non-elite individuals are similarly limited, potentially due to religious or status-induced fish consumption across society or a higher role of hunting in the Belarusian context.

“Perhaps the unexpected similarity of diets among several groups of Polack society indicates that categories like ‘elite’ and ‘commoner’, which we attempt to apply to them in the present, are too simplistic to reflect people’s lived experience,” says Vera Haponava, first author of the new study.

In future studies, the international team of researchers plans to include individuals from broader geographic regions, time periods, and social strata and employ a broader range of methods and European datasets to gain a better understanding of these questions.

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