Prehistoric humans were surprisingly creative cooks

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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 of the earliest charred food remains has suggested.

Plant material found in Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq – which is famous for its burial of a Neanderthal surrounded by flowers – and Franchthi Cave in Greece has revealed that the prehistoric cuisine of Neanderthals and early humans foods were complex, involving multiple steps, and the foods used were diverse, according to a new study published in the journal Antiquity.

Wild nuts, peas, vetch, a legume that had edible pods, and herbs were often combined with legumes such as beans or lentils, the ingredient most often identified, and sometimes wild mustard. To make the plants more palatable, the legumes, which have a naturally bitter taste, were steeped, coarsely ground or pounded with stones to remove their husks.

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

The charred food remains of Franchthi Cave dated back to 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 have been 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 UK.

Based on the food remains analyzed by the researchers, Neanderthals, thick-browed hominids that died out around 40,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens appeared to use similar ingredients and techniques, she said. added, although Wild Mustard was only found at Shanidar Cave. has been occupied by Homo sapiens.

A bread-like substance was found in the Greek cave, although its composition is unclear. According to Kabukcu, evidence that ancient humans pounded and soaked legumes in Shanidar Cave 70,000 years ago is the first direct evidence outside of Africa of the processing of plants for food.

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

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

A Neanderthal hearth has been unearthed in Shanidar Cave, where charred plant remains have also been found.

These creative cooking techniques were once thought to have emerged only with the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to human concentration on agriculture – known as the Neolithic transition – which took place between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Moreover, she said, research has suggested that life in the Stone Age was not just a brutal fight for survival, at least at these two sites, and that prehistoric humans foraged in ways selection of a variety of different plants and understood their different flavor profiles.

John McNabb, a professor at the Center for Archeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the UK, said scientific understanding of the diet of Neanderthals has changed dramatically “as we move away from the idea that they only consume huge quantities of hunted game”. Meat.”

“More data is needed for Shanidar, but if these results are confirmed, Neanderthals ate legumes and some species of the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption. Sophisticated food preparation techniques had a much deeper history than previously thought,” McNabb, who was not involved in the research, said by email.

“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they did not deliberately extract all of the off-tasting toxins. Some were left in the food, as suggested by the presence of seed coatings – that part of the seed where the bitterness is particularly localized.A Neanderthal flavor of choice.

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

Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, postdoctoral researcher in comparative biomedicine and diet 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.

A human jawbone has been excavated from a Neolithic site in southern Italy.

Quagliariello and his team were able to identify trends in food and cooking techniques, such as the introduction of fermentation and milk, and a move towards a greater dependence on carbohydrates associated with a diet based on agriculture.

McNabb said it was impressive that the researchers were able to map the changes over such a long period.

“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 once thought. It seems like a slower transition,” McNabb, who was not involved in the study, said by email.

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