News / Science & Technology

    Researchers Reveal Mysteries of Caveman Cuisine

    Microscopic fossils of 6,000-year-old garlic mustard seed, the earliest recorded use of a spice in cooking. (Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)
    Microscopic fossils of 6,000-year-old garlic mustard seed, the earliest recorded use of a spice in cooking. (Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)
    Thank God for bad Stone Age chefs, says archaeologist Hayley Saul at the University of York.

    “We like dirty pots. People who can’t cook very well," she said. "They burn food onto their pots, that’s what we’re after.”

    It’s from those charred remnants of prehistoric dinners that she and her colleagues isolated the first evidence of a spice used in cooking.

    They found microscopic traces of garlic mustard in crusts on 6,000-year-old pots found in Germany and Denmark.

    Garlic mustard grows wild today throughout Europe and western Asia. And it’s an invasive species in North America.

    “The leaves smell like garlic, but the seeds taste like mustard,” Saul explained. “Hence the name garlic mustard.”

    Microscopic fossils

    Prehistoric use of spices has been hard to study because plants decompose quickly and are not usually preserved.

    But when plant cells decay, they leave behind petrified outlines of themselves in silica.

    Studying these outlines, Saul found modern garlic mustard seed was an excellent match.

    Saul said these early Europeans were using garlic mustard seed to flavor soups of fish or game meat and starchy plants.

    Compared to the other ingredients in the soup, she said they “have pretty much no other nutritional value. Basically, its taste value is all it’s got going for it.”

    That’s why she considers it a spice.

    The charred remnants of a prehistoric meal on a fragment of a 6,000-year-old cooking pot. Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)The charred remnants of a prehistoric meal on a fragment of a 6,000-year-old cooking pot. Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)
    x
    The charred remnants of a prehistoric meal on a fragment of a 6,000-year-old cooking pot. Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)
    The charred remnants of a prehistoric meal on a fragment of a 6,000-year-old cooking pot. Courtesy of University of York, BioArCh)
    Cooking for flavor

    Saul added that there have been older finds of seeds and plants that may have been used for flavoring, but none found in cooked food.

    “The thing that makes our results quite interesting is that because we’re working on pottery residues, we can relate the spice use to an actual culinary use.”

    And it suggests that, rather than just cooking to fill bellies, people were cooking for flavor, even 6,000 years ago.

    That’s right about at the time that cultures in the region were changing from hunting and gathering to farming.

    According to Saul, there’s evidence that the use of spices migrated along with the arrival of agriculture.

    Chili peppers

    In the Americas, chili peppers were among the first domesticated plants. That culinary breakthrough happened around the same time, about 6,000 years ago, according to retired University of Missouri anthropologist Deborah Pearsall.

    “It’s not surprising that people eating kind-of a bland diet of domesticated plants would be interested in spices,” she said.

    Pearsall was part of a group that made that discovery by looking at microscopic fossils from the New World, like Saul and her team did in the Old World.

    She said the new research opens up the use of these tiny fossils to discover how our ancestors around the world used plants for cooking as well as medicine.

    Stone Age sophisticates

    For Saul, her spice find suggests that people back then were remarkably sophisticated.

    “I like the idea that people are just being incredibly creative,” she said. “I do really like the idea that the knowledge that people had in prehistory [was] very complex. There were so many plants, and so many properties to all of these different foods that people were manipulating to really enhance their cooking.”

    So maybe the average caveman was more cultured than we give him credit for.

    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora