Prehistoric Spices: Neolithic Chefs Cooked With Garlic Mustard Before Development of Agriculture [STUDY]

By Josh Lieberman on August 22, 2013 4:45 PM EDT

skara brae
Prehistoric Europeans used garlic mustard to spice up their foods. Above, a Neolithic house unearthed in Scotland. (Photo: geograph.org.uk / Chris Downer)

Prehistoric Europeans liked their food spicy, according to a new study that analyzed spice residue on ancient pottery.

The roughly 6,000-year-old pottery shards were found in modern-day Denmark and Germany, and contained silicate remains of garlic mustard and animal and fish residues. The find is noteworthy because it contradicts the idea that Mesolithic and early Neolithic hunter-gatherers ate plants simply as a means of sustaining themselves, and not for because they wanted to liven up their food.

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While spices have been found from as early as 23,000 years ago, from a site in Israel, it's difficult to tell a spice was actually used for flavoring food, or just happened to be there. But the garlic mustard residue, found inside 74 pots, offers a fairly clear picture that the spice was actually used for flavoring.

"This is the earliest evidence, as far as I know, of spice use in this region in the Western Baltic; something that has basically no nutritional value, but has this value in a taste sense," said study author Hayley Saul from the University of York in England.

Scientists are in two basic camps as regards ancient food practices. One camp believes that Mesolithic and Neolithic humans ate food based mainly on how much energy it provided, while the other camp believes that social practices and what we might think of as cooking techniques did play a role in these humans' lives.

The presence of the garlic mustard is evidence that calories weren't the only consideration when prehistoric Europeans cooked, said Saul. Creativity played a role, in the form of spices.

"The spicing of food has a much longer tradition than we previously thought," said Saul. "We found that using spices possibly predates agriculture."

The study, "Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine," was published in PLoS ONE.

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