Pulse-rich food from Shanidar Cave

(University of Liverpool)

When we picture our prehistoric ancestors, we often think of uncivilised beings only capable of communicating via monosyllabic grunts who would wolf down anything edible they could get their hands on. But over the years, archaeological evidence has cleared up this misconception to some extent, suggesting that hominins were actually a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for.

Now, a new study conducted by a team from the University of Liverpool indicates that palaeolithic humans had refined taste buds and could whip up pretty flavoursome, if not Michelin Star-worthy dishes, including flatbread-like items!

The team, led by Dr Ceren Kabukca at the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, analysed some of the oldest food remains from early modern humans (40,000 years ago) and Neanderthals (70,000 years ago) using electron microscopy. They checked out the charred remains of food found at the Shanidar Cave in Iraq, the earliest such remains discovered in South West Asia.

What the archaeologists found was evidence of complicated recipes mainly consisting of pulses with slightly bitter tastes owing to the presence of tannins and alkaloids in their seed coats.

Furthermore, the palaeolithic chefs also had a few other tricks up their metaphorical sleeves to make the food more palatable, which could probably even give Gordan Ramsay a run for his money. These hunter-gatherers employed complex preparation techniques such as soaking, leaching, pounding or rough grinding to rid the pulses of the aforementioned bitter taste.

“This study points to cognitive complexity and the development of culinary cultures in which flavours were significant from a very early date. Our work conclusively demonstrates the complexities in the early hunter-gatherer diet, which are akin to modern food preparation practices,” Dr Kabukcu said.

“For example, wild nuts and grasses were often combined with pulses, like lentils and wild mustard. These results represent a major advance over earlier debates about the eating habits of hunter-gatherers, their culinary exploits, and whether Palaeolithic foragers were predominantly carnivores or devoted vegetarians.”

This study is the first to show that modern food preparation and processing techniques, and the use of a diverse group of plant seeds, were commonplace thousands of years earlier than previously suggested — hence debunking the stereotype that Neanderthals relied on a largely meat-based diet.

Meanwhile, this discovery also indicates that modern cooking techniques have a much deeper and longer ancestry and opens up new doors for the scientific study of the evolution of the human diet.

T​he findings of this study have been detailed in Antiquity and can be accessed here.


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