New Archaeological Evidence Changes What We Thought About How Ancient Humans Prepared Food

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Humans can’t stop playing with our food. Just think of all the different ways to serve potatoes – entire books have been written just about 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 livening up 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 apart raw ingredients or perhaps roasting meat over a fire, as that’s the stereotype. But our new study showed that both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had complex diets that involved several preparation steps, and required effort to season and use plants with strong, bitter flavors.

This degree of culinary complexity had never before been documented for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

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

We examined food remains from two Late Paleolithic sites, covering a span of nearly 60,000 years, to look at the diets of early hunter-gatherers. Our evidence is based on fragments of prepared plant foods (think burnt bits of bread, patties, and lumps of porridge) found in two caves. To the naked eye, or under a low-power microscope, they look like charred crumbs or chunks, with seed fragments fused together. But a powerful scanning electron microscope allowed us to see details of plant cells.

The Real Paleo Diet: New Archaeological Evidence Changes What We Thought About How Ancient Humans Prepared Food

Scanning electron microscope images of charred food remains. Left: The bread-like food found in the Franchthi cave. Right: Legume-rich food fragment from Shanidar cave with wild peas. Credit: Ceren Kabukcu, provided by the author

prehistoric chefs

We found charred food fragments in the Franchthi cave (Aegean, Greece) dating to around 13,000-11,500 years ago. In Franchthi Cave we found a fragment of a finely ground food that could be bread, batter or a type of porridge, as well as food rich in legume seeds and coarsely ground.

In the 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 pistachio) mixed into the food. We discovered wild grass seeds mixed with legumes in the charred remains of Neanderthal layers. Previous studies at Shanidar found traces of grass seeds in the tartar of Neanderthal teeth.

At both sites, we often find ground or crushed legume seeds, such as bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), peas (Lathyrus spp) and wild peas (Pisum spp). The people who lived in these caves added the seeds to a mixture that was heated with water during grinding, crushing, or crushing of the soaked seeds.

Most of the mixtures of wild legumes were characterized by having a bitter taste. In modern cooking, these legumes are often soaked, heated, and husked (removing the seed coat) to reduce their bitterness and toxins. The ancient remains we found suggest that humans have been doing this for tens of thousands of years. But the fact that the seed coats were not completely removed suggests that these people wanted to retain a bit of the bitter taste.

The Real Paleo Diet: New Archaeological Evidence Changes What We Thought About How Ancient Humans Prepared Food

View of the Shanidar cave in Zagros, Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Chris Hunt, provided by the author

What previous studies showed

The presence of wild mustard, with its distinctive strong flavor, is a well-documented condiment in the Ceramic period (the beginning of village life in Southwest Asia, 8500 BCE) and at later Neolithic sites in the region. . Plants such as wild almonds (bitter), terebinth (tannin-rich and oily), and wild fruits (sharp, sometimes sour, sometimes tannin-rich) are ubiquitous in plant remains from southwest Asia and Europe during the Late Paleolithic period (40,000 -10,000 years ago). Its inclusion in dishes based on herbs, tubers, meat, fish, would have given a special flavor to the finished meal. So these plants were consumed for tens of thousands of years in areas separated by thousands of kilometers. These dishes may be the origin of human culinary practices.

Based on evidence from plants found during this time period, there is no doubt that both Neanderthal and early modern human diets included a variety of plants. Previous studies found food residues trapped in tartar on the teeth of Neanderthals from Europe and Southwest Asia showing that they cooked and ate herbs and root vegetables such as wild barley and medicinal plants. The remains of charred plant remains show that they collected legumes and pine nuts.

The Real Paleo Diet: New Archaeological Evidence Changes What We Thought About How Ancient Humans Prepared Food

A Neanderthal home found in the Shanidar cave. Credit: Graeme Barker, provided by the author

Plant residues found on grinding or crushing tools from the late European Paleolithic period suggest that early modern humans crushed and roasted wild grass seeds. Residues from an Upper Paleolithic site on the Pontic steppe in eastern Europe show that the ancients crushed the tubers before eating them. Archaeological evidence from South Africa dating back 100,000 years indicates that Homo sapiens used crushed wild grass seeds.

While both Neanderthals and early modern humans ate plants, this doesn’t show up as consistently in stable isotope evidence from skeletons, which tells us about the major sources of dietary protein over a person’s lifetime. Recent studies suggest that Neanderthal populations in Europe were high-level carnivores. Studies show that Homo sapiens appear to have had a greater diversity in their diet than Neanderthals, with a higher proportion of plants. But we are confident that our evidence of early culinary complexity is the beginning of many finds from early hunter-gatherer sites in the region.

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Citation: The Real Paleo Diet: New Archaeological Evidence Changes What We Thought About How Ancient Humans Prepared Food (November 26, 2022) Retrieved November 26, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11- real-paleo-diet-archaeological-evidence.html

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