Do you want some mustard to spice up your Stone Age broth? Scientists reveal secrets of prehistoric cuisine

New evidence reveals diet of early Europeans was more complex than previously thought

Prehistoric Europeans were spicing up their food with garlic mustard more than 6,000 years ago, according to new research into the surprising complexity of Stone Age cuisine.

Detailed microscopic analysis of residues found on fragments of Stone Age pottery is revealing how Mesolithic people used herbs and spices to give extra flavour to meat-based broths.

One plant – garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) – has  been identified so far, and as the research proceeds scientists hope to identify other spices and herbs used for prehistoric flavouring.

The new evidence challenges the view that plants were exploited by ancient hunter-gatherers “solely for energy requirement rather than taste”, said Dr Hayley Saul of the University of York, a lead researcher on the project.

Not only were Mesolithic cooks developing more complex meals prepared for taste as well as nourishment, they were also catering for relatively large family groups – feeding up to 15 people at a time and cooking with large clay pots.

The new evidence comes from an archaeological site called Stenø on the island of Zealand in Denmark. However, the discovery almost certainly has implications for understanding early cuisine throughout Europe and beyond.

It is believed, but not yet proven, that Mesolithic cooks were also using caraway seeds, blue fenugreek and horseradish.

Certainly, Mesolithic-style cuisine survived into the succeeding Neolithic period and beyond – as similar traces of garlic mustard seeds being used to flavour both meat and fish broths have been found at Danish and German sites dating from some 350 years after the Mesolithic evidence.

The key evidence was provided by the “fossilised” remnants of mustard seed cells found within carbonised animal fat adhering to fragments of cooking pots. Determining the type of plant cells relies on a trick of nature. All plants absorb silica from the soil and, as a result, in some species, a silica “skin” forms around some of the cells – in the case of the garlic mustard seeds, just five microns across. Although the cells themselves have long disappeared, the tell-tale silica skins – known as phytoliths – survive and therefore allow scientists to identify particular species of plant.

Dr Saul, of the BioArCH research centre at the University of York, said: “The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants  were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavour. As garlic mustard has a strong flavour but little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues, our findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine.

“Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods in this region than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste,” Dr Saul added.

The new Stone Age spice evidence is being published in the open access on-line science journal PLOS ONE.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor

£12000 - £14400 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Account Manager

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are proud to be on...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Engineer with SQL skills

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Ashdown Group: Trainee / Graduate Helpdesk Analyst

£20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project