WE HUMANS CAN’T stop playing with our food. Just think of all the different ways of serving potatoes — entire books have been written about potato recipes alone. The restaurant industry was born from our love of flavoring food in new and interesting ways.
My team’s analysis of the oldest charred food remains ever found shows that jazzing up your dinner is a human habit dating back at least 70,000 years.
Imagine ancient people sharing a meal. You would be forgiven for picturing people tearing into raw ingredients or maybe roasting meat over a fire, as that is the stereotype. But our new study showed both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had complex diets involving several steps of preparation and took an effort to season and use plants with bitter and sharp flavors.
This degree of culinary complexity has never been documented before for Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers.
Before our study, the earliest known plant food remains in southwest Asia were from a hunter-gatherer site in Jordan, roughly dating to 14,400 years ago, reported in 2018.
We examined food remains from two late Paleolithic sites, which cover a span of nearly 60,000 years, to look at the diets of early hunter-gatherers. Our evidence is based on fragments of prepared plant foods (think burnt pieces of bread, patties, and porridge lumps) found in two caves. To the naked eye or under a low-power microscope, they look like carbonized crumbs or chunks with fragments of fused seeds. But a powerful scanning electron microscope allowed us to see details of plant cells.