Prehistoric people were surprisingly creative cooks

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Stone Age cooks were surprisingly sophisticated, combining a number of Ingredients, and the use of different techniques to prepare and flavor their meals, has been suggested by analysis of some of the earliest charred remains of food.

Plant Material Found in Shanidar Cave in Northern Iraq — famous for its Neanderthal burial surrounded by flowers — and the Franchthi Cave in Greece showed that prehistoric cooking by Neanderthals and early modern humans was complex, involved multiple steps, and that the foods used were diverse in Antiquity magazine.

Wild nuts, peas, vetch, a legume with edible seed pods, and grasses were often paired with legumes such as beans or lentils, the most commonly identified ingredient, and sometimes wild mustard. To make the plants tastier, legumes, which are naturally bitter, were soaked, coarsely ground, or stone-pounded to remove their skins.

In the Shanidar Cave, researchers studied plant remains from 70,000 years ago, when space was inhabited by Neanderthals, an extinct human species, and was home to early modern humans (Homo sapiens) 40,000 years ago.

The charred remains of food from Franchthi Cave date back to 12,000 years ago, when it was also inhabited by the hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens.

Despite the distance in time and space, similar plants and cooking techniques have been identified at both locations—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 UK.

Based on the food remains analyzed by the researchers, Neanderthals, the thick-browed hominins who disappeared about 40,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens appeared to use similar ingredients and techniques, she added, although wild mustard has only been found in the Shanidar Cave, the was from this period occupied by Homo sapiens.

A bread-like substance was found in the Greek cave, although it was not clear what it was made of. Evidence that ancient people were pounding and soaking legumes in Shanidar Cave 70,000 years ago is the earliest direct evidence outside of Africa of processing plants into food, according to Kabukcu.

kabukcu said she was surprised to find that prehistoric people combined herbal ingredients in this way, an indication that taste was clearly important. She had expected to find only starchy plants like roots and tubers, which at first glance seem more nutritious and easier to prepare.

Much research into prehistoric diets has focused on whether early humans were predominantly meat eaters, but Kabukcu said it’s clear they weren’t just munching on woolly mammoth steaks. Our ancient ancestors ate a varied diet depending on where they lived, and this likely included a wide variety of plants.

A Neanderthal fire was excavated in Shanidar Cave, where charred plant remains were also found.

Such creative cooking techniques were once thought to have just turned up with the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to human focus on agriculture – known as the Neolithic Transition – 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In addition, she said, the research suggested that Stone Age life was not just a brutal struggle for survival, at least in those two places, and that prehistoric humans selectively sought out a variety of different plants and understood their distinct flavor profiles.

John McNabb, a professor at the Center for the Archeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the UK, said the scientific understanding of Neanderthal diets has changed significantly, “as we move away from the idea that they only ate huge amounts eat meat from hunted game.”

“More data from Shanidar are needed, but if these results are supported, then Neanderthals ate legumes and some species of the grass family, which had to be carefully prepared before consumption. Sophisticated food preparation techniques had a much deeper history than previously thought,” McNabb, who was not involved with the research, said via email.

“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they didn’t intentionally extract all the inedible toxins. Some were left in the food, as suggested by the presence of seed coatings – the part of the seed where the bitterness is most prominent. A Neanderthal flavor of choice.”

A separate study on prehistoric diets, also published Tuesday, analyzed the Oral microbiome – fungi, bacteria and viruses found in the mouth – using ancient DNA from dental plaque.

Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, postdoctoral researcher in comparative biomedicine and nutrition the University of Padua in Italy studied the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals living in prehistoric Italy over a 30,000-year period, as well as microscopic food debris found in calcified plaques.

A human jawbone has been unearthed at a Neolithic site in southern Italy.

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 towards a greater reliance on carbohydrates associated with an agricultural diet.

McNabb said it’s impressive that researchers have been able to make chart changes over such a long period of time.

“What the study also supports is the growing notion that the Neolithic was not the sudden arrival of new subsistence practices and new cultures, as was previously thought. It appears to be a slower transition,” McNabb, who was not involved with the study, said via email.

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