Paleolithic meals were probably more flavorful and complex than you’d expect, with new research revealing that meals from between 70,000 and 75,000 years ago contained processed pulses and compounds that researchers think were intentionally left in to impart specific tastes.
“Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – amongst Neanderthals and also early modern people, long before farming and fine dining restaurants," study author Professor Chris Hunt said in a statement.
The team examined ancient charred food remains from two different sites: Shanidar cave in the Zagros Mountains of Iraq, and Franchthi Cave on the Argolid Peninsula in Greece.
The remains at Shanidar were dated to 70,000-75,000 years ago, whereas the remains at Franchthi were dated to 11,400-13,100 years ago. “Some of these materials represent the earliest remains of their kind discovered to date in South-west Asia and Europe,” the authors write.
Pulse seed fragments were found in most of the remains, indicating that these ancient chefs were pounding, cracking, and grinding their ingredients. A “gelatinized matrix” around the pieces also indicates that the seeds were soaked before eating.
“Because the Neanderthals had no pots, we presume that they soaked their seeds in a fold of an animal skin,” Hunt told The Guardian.
“Pulse seeds, especially bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia) and grass pea (Lathyrus cassius, L. hirsutus and L. nissolia), contain notable quantities of alkaloids and tannins, resulting in a bitter and astringent taste” concentrated in their coats, the authors explain. “Apart from detoxification, food preparation practices such as soaking and pounding would also have improved the bioavailability of bulk nutrients.”
“The presence of seed coat fragments, however, suggests that a low level of plant chemicals, including some tannins and alkaloids, may have been intentionally retained in plant food preparations.” Fragments of wild mustards were also found in samples from Shanidar.
“This points to cognitive complexity and the development of culinary cultures in which flavours were significant from a very early date,” study author Dr Ceren Kabukcu said.
“In a calorie-driven interpretation of Palaeolithic diet, plants are categorised as ‘low-ranked’ resources, due to the time- and labour-intensive nature of gathering and processing them,” the paper says, with the researchers adding that their results highlight that “labour-intensive processing of a broad spectrum of plant foods, including bitter, astringent and potentially toxic plants for human consumption, was an integral part of hunter-gatherer resource management strategies.”
The authors even decided to put this example of a real-life Paleo diet recipe to the test, with Hunt telling the Guardian that “It made a sort of pancake-cum-flatbread which was really very palatable – a sort of nutty taste.”
“Having sampled the re-created recipe, I think we can understand why the Neanderthals had teeth in such a degraded state.”
The study is published in Antiquity.