Oldest charred food remains reveals ancient paleo cooking techniques

An analysis of the oldest known charred food remains has revealed some of the cooking tricks used by early modern human and Neanderthal chefs to make their meals more palatable.

Research has often focused on the importance of meat in the diet of ancient hunter-gatherers. However, Dr Ceren Kabukcu and a team of archaeologists wanted to explore the role of plants in the diet of Palaeolithic humans and Neanderthals.

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To investigate this, the team used a scanning electron microscope to analyse ancient charred food on the micrometre scale. The samples came from early modern human and Neanderthal occupations at Shanidar Cave, Iraq, and Franchthi Cave, Greece. Together, this material captures food preparation techniques used over the past 70,000 years.

“The charred food fragments from Franchthi Cave are the earliest of their kind recovered in Europe, from a hunter-gatherer occupation around 12,000 years ago,” said Dr Kabukcu, from the University of Liverpool, “Those from Shanidar Cave are the earliest in Southwest Asia, from Neanderthal and human layers dated to 70 and 40 thousand years ago respectively.”

The results of this analysis, published in the journal Antiquity, confirmed that plants played a prominent role in the diet of early modern humans and Neanderthals.

“Our work conclusively demonstrates the deep antiquity of plant foods involving more than one ingredient and processed with multiple preparation steps,” said Dr Kabukcu. Wild nuts and grasses were often combined with pulses, like lentils, and wild mustard.

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The team were even able to identify some of the techniques used to prepare this food to make it more palatable. Pulses, the most common ingredient identified, have a naturally bitter taste due to the tannins and alkaloids in the seed coats. However clever Palaeolithic chefs used a range of tricks to lower the amount of these harsh-tasting compounds in their food.

“Their preparation through soaking and leaching followed by pounding or rough grinding would remove much of the bitter taste,” said Dr Kabukcu.

Pounding or grinding would also make it easier for the body to absorb nutrients in the food. It also opens up cooking options – one food deposit from Franchthi Cave consists of a bread-like meal made by grinding seeds into super-fine flour.

However, neither the Neanderthal nor early modern human chefs removed the entire seed coat. This is a process known as hulling and is common in modern agriculture as it almost entirely eliminates the bitter compounds. The fact the Palaeolithic people did not hull suggests they wanted to reduce but not eliminate the pulses’ natural bitter taste in their meals.

“This points to cognitive complexity and the development of culinary cultures in which flavours were significant from a very early date,” said Dr Kabukcu.


Header Image Credit : Antiquity


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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