Our early ancestors had a taste for spicy food, new research led by the University of York has revealed. Archaeologists at York, working with colleagues in Denmark, Germany and Spain, have found evidence of the use of spices in cuisine at the transition to agriculture. The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years, says an August 21, 2013 news release, "Researchers reveal hunter-gatherers' taste for spice." Garlic mustard is a green, leafy plant but itself. It's not a mixture of the yellow mustard we see today mixed with garlic. It's a wild plant that tastes like a combination of mustard and garlic in flavor.
We never give up our taste for the best garlic mustard toppings, marinades, or dips on savory vegetables, fish, or meat. Seven thousand years ago, Europeans in England slathered garlic mustard on their foods, such as starchy plant foods, fish, and meats, says a new study about what people ate during the time that hunting and gathering began to transition to agriculture. Researchers reveal hunter-gatherers' taste for spice.
If salt wasn't readily available to sprinkle on food, or known to everyone, then the wild garlic-mustard plant took its place to add flavor and aroma to foods. The garlic mustard also was chopped up and pressed or ladled onto vegetables and anything else edible and savory, like a dip, spread, condiment, or marinade. The probable goal was spicy flavor. Since potatoes, chili peppers, and tomatoes were unknown in England and Denmark 7,000 years ago because they came from the New World to Europe after Columbus' time, other starchy plant foods native to Europe were smeared with the garlic mustard plant which had a spicy aroma and taste.
It spiced up fish and meat as well, when animal protein could be found. And it probably tasted better than what came before, soaking the food in melted animal fats or heating on a stone and wood-burning outdoor oven, as Europe then had more forests than it has in current times.
European early ancestors had a taste for spicy food, new research led by the University of York has revealed. Archaeologists at York, working with colleagues in Denmark, Germany and Spain, have found evidence of the use of spices in cuisine at the transition to agriculture. About 7,000 years ago, migrations from the Middle East into Southern, Central, and Northern Europe were gradually bringing agriculture, spices, and other new foods at the same time amber was being traded from the Baltic.
The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years, according to a new study, "Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine," published online August 21, 2013 in Plos One.
Researchers analyzed carbonized food deposits from pots found in Europe
The silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along with animal and fish residues were discovered through microfossil analysis of carbonized food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany. The pottery dated from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.
Previously scientists have analyzed starches which survive well in carbonized and non-carbonized residues to test for the use of spices in prehistoric cooking. But the new research, which is reported in Plos One, suggests that the recovery of phytoliths – silicate deposits from plants -- offers the additional possibility to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, not detectable using starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.
The garlic mustard had more flavor than nutritional value
Lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research center at at the University of York, said: "The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants, and the reasons for their cultivation, were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavor. As garlic mustard has a strong flavor 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."
The research was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The research also involved scientists at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Institución Milá i Fontanals, Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona, Spain; the Danish Agency for Culture, Copenhagen, Denmark; the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany. And Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, Schloβ Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany.
Pottery residue reveals spice use in prehistoric European cuisine. Garlic mustard used to flavor meats, starches by prehistoric northern European societies
Plant residues in cooking pots reveal the use of spices in prehistoric cuisine in northern Europe, according to research published August 21 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Hayley Saul and colleagues from the University of York, reports another August 21, 2013 news release, "Pottery residue reveals spice use in prehistoric European cuisine." You also can read the study in the Public Library of Science.
Blackened deposits inside the pottery shards studied contained residues of microscopic plant silica bodies, called phytoliths, which resemble those found in modern-day garlic mustard seeds, a peppery mustard-flavored spice. Garlic mustard has little nutritional value, and the shards also contained residues of fats from a range of marine and terrestrial animals, as well as starchy plant foods, suggesting the spice was used to flavor these foods. The pottery shards, which are at least 6,100 years old, were recovered from sites in Denmark and Germany and date from a period when prehistoric people transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming.
Although garlic mustard was present locally, it is unclear whether the practice of using it as a spice originated in the western Baltic area or was derived from the Near East and brought to the region. Regardless of the origins of the practice, the study concludes, "Plant microfossil analysis has opened a new avenue in the study of prehistoric culinary practice in northern European temperate climates. Further, it is now established that the habit of enhancing and altering the flavor of calorie rich staples was part of European cuisine as far back as the 7th millennia BCE."
Saul elaborates in the August 21, 2013 news release, Pottery residue reveals spice use in prehistoric European cuisine, "Until now it has been widely accepted that the calorific content of foods was of primary importance in the decisions by hunter-gatherers about what to eat. Both the actual finding of seed phytoliths consistent with garlic mustard spice, and the method of discovery, open up a new avenue for the investigation of prehistoric cuisines." You can read the study, "Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine," published online August 21, 2013 in PLoS ONE 8(8): e70583. Authors are Saul H, Madella M, Fischer A, Glykou A, Hartz S, et al. (2013).
The Baltic Foragers and Early Farmers Ceramic Research Project is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project (AH/E008232/1). Check out the AHRC site. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors have declared that no competing interests exist. Check out the study, "Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine," is published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), the open-access publisher whose goal is to make the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource. All works published in PLOS ONE are Open Access. Everything is immediately available—to read, download, redistribute, include in databases and otherwise use—without cost to anyone, anywhere, subject only to the condition that the original authors and source are properly attributed.