Researchers have found evidence for garlic mustard seeds in cooking residues left on ancient pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. This proves Ancient European hunter gatherers used garlic mustard seeds to give their foods a peppery kick as far back as 6,000 years ago.
The finding, published this week in the journal PLOS One, is the oldest evidence of spices being used for culinary purposes, said study co-author Oliver Craig, an archeologist at the University of York in the UK.
We think it was mixed with other ingredients in a pot, so it was actually used to deliberately spice other foods," Craig said. Craig and his team found microscopic specks of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, on fire-scorched pottery shards collected from three campsites in north central Europe that ranged between 5,800 and 6,150 years old.
The team identified the seeds as belonging to the garlic mustard plant, also known as Jack-by-the-hedge. The tiny black seeds from this plant have no nutritional value, but are known for their pungent, peppery taste.
Older examples of spices in the archaeological record are known, Craig says, but none have been so clearly linked to cooking as in this case.
Craig says his team has plans to examine pottery shards from other parts of the world.
The new findings challenge the idea that ancient hunter-gatherers chose foods primarily to fulfill their caloric needs, since garlic mustard seeds have essentially zero nutritional value, Craig said.
"We're very interested in looking at other pottery residues to see why people began inventing pottery in the first place," he said, "and more broadly, why hunter-gatherers were using pottery."