Hand to mouth

Pic by Sven Rosborn: public domain.
Tollund man, photographed in 1950 by Sven Rosborn. Public domain.

Meet Tollund man, whose body was recovered from a peat bog in Denmark in 1950. His face is one of a handful to have survived down the centuries from an age when finding food in Europe was a constant struggle. The cadaver was so well preserved in the sphagnum moss that scientists have had an opportunity to investigate Tollund man’s last meal.

This was a rough gruel made from seeds and grain, including barley, flax and common knotweed. There is no way of knowing whether Tollund man ate as frequently as once a day, but every last morsel of food came from his immediate surroundings.

There was no question of exotic or imported food reaching such a humble soul. This may strike us as strange since we live in a world where foods of all descriptions travel halfway round the world. We need to recognise that Tollund man had marginal existence rather than a sustainable diet. How he survived is a mystery to us in the twenty first century, but we are about to relearn the skill set or perish in the attempt. The plants Tollund man harvested can still be found at certain times during the year and these harvests will reclaim their relevance to our times, probably within our lifetimes.

We should not think of Tollund man as a survivor in a hostile environment that has long since been domesticated but recognise that this former denizen of the wild prehistoric lowlands has a lesson for us. Regardless of how he met his end, Tollund man lived by foraging and had skills that we are likely to need once more.

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