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Stone Age cooks were surprisingly sophisticated, combining an array of ingredients and using different techniques to prepare and flavor their meals, analysis of some the earliest charred food remains has suggested.
Plant material found at the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq — which is famous for its burial of a Neanderthal surrounded by flowers — and Franchthi Cave in Greece revealed prehistoric cooking by Neanderthals and early modern humans was complex, involving several steps, and that the foods used were diverse, according to a new study published in the journal Antiquity.
Wild nuts, peas, vetch, a legume which had edible seed pods, and grasses were often combined with pulses like beans or lentils, the most commonly identified ingredient, and at times, wild mustard. To make the plants more palatable, pulses, which have a naturally bitter taste, were soaked, coarsely ground or pounded with stones to remove their husk.
At Shanidar Cave, the researchers studied plant remains from 70,000 years ago, when the space was inhabited by Neanderthals, an extinct species of human, and 40,000 years ago, when it was home to early modern humans (Homo sapiens).
The charred food remains from Franchthi Cave dated from 12,000 years ago, when it was also occupied by hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens.
Despite the distance in time and space, similar plants and cooking techniques were identified at both sites — possibly suggesting a shared culinary tradition, said the study’s lead author Dr. Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.
Based on the food remains researchers analyzed, Neanderthals, the heavy-browed hominins who disappeared about 40,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens appeared to use similar ingredients and techniques, she added, although wild mustard was only found at Shanidar Cave dating back to when it was occupied by Homo sapiens.
Early processed food
A breadlike substance was found at the Greek cave, although it wasn’t clear what it was made from. The evidence that ancient humans pounded and soaked pulses at Shanidar Cave 70,000 years ago is the earliest direct evidence outside Africa of the processing of plants for food, according to Kabukcu.
Kabukcu said she was surprised to find that prehistoric people were combining plant ingredients in this way, an indication that flavor was clearly important. She had expected to find only starchy plants like roots and tubers, which on face value appear to be more nutritious and are easier to prepare.
Much research on prehistoric diets has focused on whether early humans were predominantly meat eaters, but Kabukcu said it was clear they weren’t just chomping on woolly mammoth steaks. Our ancient ancestors ate a varied diet depending on where they lived, and this likely included a wide range of plants.
Such creative cooking techniques were once thought to have emerged only with the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to humans’ focus on agriculture — known as the Neolithic transition — that took place between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
What’s more, she said, the research suggested life in the Stone Age was not just a brutal fight to survive, at least at these two sites, and that prehistoric humans selectively foraged a variety of different plants and understood their different flavor profiles.
John McNabb, a professor at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the UK said that scientific understanding of the Neanderthal diet has changed significantly “as we move away from the idea of them just consuming huge quantities of hunted game meat.”
“More data is needed from Shanidar, but if these results are supported then Neanderthals were eating pulses and some species from the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption. Sophisticated techniques of food preparation had a much deeper history than previously thought,” McNabb, who wasn’t involved in the research, said via email.
“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they did not deliberately extract all the unpalatable toxins. Some were left in the food, as the presence of seed coatings suggests — that part of the seed where the bitterness is especially located. A Neanderthal flavor of choice.”
Prehistoric microbiomes tracked
A separate study into prehistoric diets that also published Tuesday analyzed ancient humans’ oral microbiome — fungi, bacteria and viruses that reside in the mouth — by using ancient DNA from dental plaque.
Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, a postdoctoral research fellow in comparative biomedicine and food at the University of Padua in Italy, examined the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals who lived in prehistoric Italy over a period of 30,000 years, as well as microscopic food remains found in calcified plaque.
Quagliariello and his team were able to identify trends in diet and cooking techniques, such as the introduction of fermentation and milk, and a shift to a greater reliance on carbohydrates associated with an agriculture-based diet.
McNabb said it was impressive that researchers had been able chart changes over such a long period of time.
“What the study also does is support the growing idea that the Neolithic was not the sudden arrival of new subsistence practices and new cultures as it was once thought to be. It appears to be a slower transition,” McNabb, who wasn’t involved in the study, said via email.