The first precise and irrefutable evidence that prehistoric people in Europe used spices in cooking was presented by a team of anthropologists from universities in Britain, Spain, and Germany in the Aug. 21, 2013, issue of the journal Public Library of Science.
Evidence has been unearthed previously that spice plants were part of early European’s diet as far back as 7,000 years ago, but this is the first hard evidence that spice was used solely for flavor enhancement and not as a source of nutritional value.
Pottery shards from Switzerland, France, Germany, and Spain were found to contain phytoliths. Phytoliths are microscopic plant silica bodies that in these instances closely resemble garlic mustard seeds.
The garlic mustard seeds were found in pottery from coastal and mountain regions where prehistoric Europeans were known to have lived. The garlic seed remnants date from 5,750 to 6,100 years ago.
The time frame indicates the use of spice to flavor food began before people began farming.
The pottery also contained the residues of fish fat, animal fats, and the remains of starchy plants. This fact adds weight to the conclusion that garlic mustard seeds were used exclusively for flavoring foods. Garlic mustard seeds have a minimal nutritional value and would not have been a preferred food for early Europeans.
The researchers conjecture that the transfer of the use of garlic mustard seeds as a spice came from Africa and the Middle East where similar spice residues have been found.