Oldest charred food remains shine light on Palaeolithic cooking techniques

Research suggests that for Neanderthals and early modern humans, flavour was an important consideration during food preparation.

Scientific analysis of the oldest charred food remains ever discovered has shone a light on the diversity and complexity of Palaeolithic dietary and food preparation practices.

cerem kabuk Charred food fragments – representing the earliest evidence of Palaeolithic plant food processing – were collected from Neanderthal and early human occupation layers at Shanidar Cave, Iraq. Image: Christ Hunt

Meat consumption has often been the focus of research into the diet of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, with comparatively limited evidence for the use of plant foods.

To address this, a team of archaeologists led by Dr Ceren Kabucku from the University of Liverpool analysed samples of carbonised remains of processed plants from two different sites: Franchthi Cave, located in the Argolid peninsula of southern mainland Greece, and Shanidar Cave in the north-west Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

‘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. ‘Those from Shanidar Cave are the earliest in Southwest Asia, from Neanderthal and human layers dated to 70,000 and 40,000 years ago respectively.’

Microscopic analysis revealed that all of the carbonised food remains contained fragments of pulse seeds (likely lentil, vetch, pea, and wild mustard).

 A hearth found at the Neanderthal site of Shanidar Cave. Image: Graeme Barker

The variation in sizes and smooth edges of the seed fragments indicates that techniques – believed to include soaking or boiling and leaching followed by coarse grinding or pounding – were used to prepare the pulses for safe consumption and make them more palatable.

Pulses have a naturally bitter taste due to the alkaloids and tannins present in the seed coats. Most of this bitterness would have been eliminated through these preparation processes.

However, the fact that neither the Neanderthals nor early modern humans removed the entire seed coat – a process known as hulling – suggests that they wanted to retain some of the pulses’ natural bitter taste.

cerem kabuk A Scanning Electron Microscope was used to analyse the carbonised food remains. Left image shows a bread-like food, made by grinding seeds into a fine flour, discovered in Franchthi Cave. Right image shows a pulse-rich food fragment from Shanidar Cave with wild pea. Images: Ceren Kabukcu

This adds to evidence indicating a tolerance of, or preference for, astringent flavours in Palaeolithic cuisine.

More generally, the findings point ‘to cognitive complexity and the development of culinary cultures in which flavours were significant from a very early date,’ said Dr Kabukcu.

They added: ‘Our work conclusively demonstrates the deep antiquity of plant foods involving more than one ingredient and processed with multiple preparation steps.’

The paper has been published in the journal Antiquity.