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Stone Age cooks were surprisingly sophisticated, combining a variety of ingredients and using different techniques to prepare and flavor their meals, analysis of some of the earliest charred food remains has suggested.
Plant material found at Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq – famous for its burial of a Neanderthal surrounded by flowers – and Franchthi Cave in Greece revealed that prehistoric cooking by Neanderthals and early modern humans was complex, multi-step, and that the food that were used were diverse, according to a new study published in the journal Antiquity.
Wild nuts, peas, vetch, a legume that had edible seed pods, and grasses were often combined with legumes such as beans or lentils, the most familiar ingredient, and sometimes wild mustard. To make the plants more palatable, legumes, which have a naturally bitter taste, were soaked, coarsely ground or pounded with stones to remove the skin.
At Shanidar Cave, the researchers studied plant remains from 70,000 years ago, when the room was inhabited by Neanderthals, an extinct human species, and 40,000 years ago, when it was home to early modern humans (Homo sapiens).
The charred remains of food from Franchthi Cave date 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 in both places — possibly suggests a shared culinary tradition, said the study’s lead author Dr. Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool in Britain.
Based on the food remains the 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 the Shanidar Cave dating back until when it was occupied by Homo sapiens.
A bread-like substance was found at the Greek cave, although it was not clear what it was made of. The evidence of ancient people pounding and soaking legumes at Shanidar Cave 70,000 years ago is the earliest direct evidence outside of Africa of processing plants for food, according to Kabukcu.
Kabukcu said she was surprised to find that prehistoric people combined plant ingredients in this way, an indication that taste was clearly important. She had expected to find only starchy plants such as roots and tubers, which on face value appear to be more nutritious and easier to prepare.
Much research on prehistoric diets has focused on whether early humans were primarily meat eaters, but Kabukcu said it was clear they didn’t just eat woolly mammoth beef. Our ancient ancestors ate a varied diet depending on where they lived, and this probably included a wide range of plants.
Such creative cooking techniques were once thought only to have appeared with the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to humans’ focus on agriculture – known as the Neolithic transition – which took place between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Also, she said, the research suggested that life in the Stone Age was not just a brutal struggle for survival, at least in these two places, and that prehistoric people selectively sought out a variety of different plants and understood their different flavor profiles.
John McNabb, a professor at the Center for the Archeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the UK, said that the scientific understanding of the Neanderthal diet has changed significantly “when we move away from the idea that they only ate huge amounts of hunted game. meat.”
“More data are needed from Shanidar, but if these results are supported, Neanderthals ate legumes and some species of the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption. Sophisticated cooking techniques had a much deeper history than previously thought,” said McNabb, who was not involved in the research, via e-mail.
“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they didn’t consciously extract all the unpalatable toxins. Some remained in the food, as the presence of the seed coat suggests—the part of the seed where the bitterness is particularly localized. An optional Neanderthal taste.”
A separate study of prehistoric diets also published Tuesday analyzed those of ancient humans oral microbiome – fungi, bacteria and viruses residing in the mouth – using old DNA from dental plaque.
Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, postdoctoral fellow in comparative biomedicine and food at University of Padua in Italy, examined the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals living 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 agricultural diet.
McNabb said it was impressive that researchers had been able to map 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,” said McNabb, who were not involved in the study, via e-mail.