Ancient traces of burnt food reveal a surprising truth about the Paleo diet: ScienceAlert

We humans can’t stop playing with our food. Just think of all the different ways potatoes can be served – entire books have been written just on potato recipes.

The restaurant industry was born out of our love of flavoring food in new and interesting ways.

My team’s analysis of the oldest charred food remains ever found shows that eating your dinner is a human habit dating back at least 70,000 years.

Imagine ancient people sharing a meal. You’d be forgiven for picturing people tearing up raw ingredients or maybe grilling meat over a fire, as that’s the stereotype.

But our new study showed both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had complex diets that involved many stages of preparation and required effort with seasoning and the use of plants with bitter and pungent tastes.

Thumbnail Image of Food Leftovers
Scanning Electron Microscopy Images of Carbonated Food Residues. Left: The bread-like food found in Fraghthi Cave. Right: Fragment of legume-rich food from Shanidar Cave with wild pea. (Ceren Kabukcu)

This degree of culinary sophistication has never been documented before for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

Prior to our study, the earliest known remains of plant food in southwest Asia came from a hunter-gatherer site in Jordan dating to about 14,400 years ago, as reported in 2018.

We examined food remains from two Late Paleolithic sites spanning nearly 60,000 years to examine the diet of early hunter-gatherers.

Our evidence is based on fragments of prepared plant foods (think burnt pieces of bread, patties and lumps of porridge) found in two caves.

With the naked eye or under a low-power microscope, they look like carbonaceous crumbs or pieces, with fragments of fused seeds. But a powerful scanning electron microscope allowed us to see details of plant cells.

Prehistoric chefs

We found carbonized food fragments in Fraghthi Cave (Aegean, Greece) dating to about 13,000-11,500 years ago. In Phragthi Cave we found a piece of a finely ground food that could be bread, batter or a type of porridge, in addition to foods rich in legume seeds, coarsely ground.

In Shanidar Cave (Zagros, Iraqi Kurdistan), associated with early modern humans around 40,000 years ago and Neanderthals around 70,000 years ago, we also found ancient food fragments. This included wild mustard and terebinth (wild peanut) mixed into food.

We discovered wild grass seeds mixed with legumes in the charred remains from the Neanderthal layers. Previous studies at Shanidar found traces of grass seeds in the stone in Neanderthal teeth.

Cave in the rock near trees
Shanidar Cave in Zagros, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Chris Hunt)

At both sites, we often found ground or pounded legume seeds, such as bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), pea grass (Lathyrus spp) and wild pea (Pisum spp). The people living in these caves added the seeds to a mixture heated with water while grinding, pounding or mashing the soaked seeds.

The majority of wild pulse mixtures were characterized by bitter tasting mixtures. In modern cooking, these legumes are often soaked, heated and hulled (removal of the seed layer) to reduce their bitterness and toxins.

The ancient remains we found suggest that people have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. But the fact that the seed coats were not completely removed implies that these people wanted to retain some of the bitter taste.

What previous studies have shown

The presence of wild mustard, with its characteristic pungent flavor, is a condiment well documented in the Ceramic period (beginning of village life in southwest Asia, 8500 BC) and later in Neolithic sites in the region.

Plants such as wild almonds (bitter), terabinth (rich in tannins and fatty), and wild fruits (pungent, sometimes acidic, sometimes rich in tannins) are widespread in plant remains from southwest Asia and Europe by the late Paleolithic period (40,000 -10,000 years ago).

Their inclusion in dishes based on greens, tubers, meat and fish would have given a special flavor to the final meal. So these plants have been eaten for tens of thousands of years in areas thousands of miles apart. These dishes may be the origin of human culinary practices.

Based on the evidence from plants found during this time period, there is little doubt that the diets of both Neanderthals and early modern humans included a variety of plants.

Previous studies have found food remains trapped in the teeth of Neanderthals from Europe and southwest Asia, indicating that they cooked and ate grasses and tubers such as wild barley and medicinal plants. The remains of carbonized plant remains show that they gathered legumes and pine nuts.

Plant remains found on grinding or hammering tools from the European Later Paleolithic period suggest that early modern humans crushed and roasted wild grass seeds. Remains from an Upper Paleolithic site on the Pontic steppe in eastern Europe show ancient people pounding the tubers before eating them.

Archaeological evidence from South Africa as early as 100,000 years ago shows Homo sapiens used crushed wild grass seeds.

While both Neanderthals and early modern humans ate plants, this does not show up as consistently in the stable isotope evidence from skeletons, which tell us about the main sources of protein in the diet during a person’s lifetime.

Recent studies show that Neanderthal populations in Europe were top-level carnivores. Studies show that Homo sapiens seem to have had a more diverse diet than Neanderthals, with a higher proportion of plants.

But we are confident that our evidence of early culinary sophistication is the beginning of many finds from early hunter-gatherer sites in the region.The conversation

Ceren KabukcuResearch Fellow in Archaeology, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *