Home Archeology Pottery residue reveals earliest evidence of food spicing

Pottery residue reveals earliest evidence of food spicing

According to the results of a new research effort led by archeologists at the University of York, England, ancient humans had a partiality for spicy food.  In addition to archeologists from York, colleagues from Denmark, Spain, and Germany have discovered evidence of the use of various spices in foods around the time of transition to agriculture.  Following analysis of the charred remains of nearly 7,000-year-old pottery, the researchers discovered trace amounts of garlic mustard, as well as residues of animals and fish.

“As this seed has a strong flavor, little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots along with terrestrial and marine animal residues, these findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine,” wrote the authors in the study’s abstract.

The glass-like remains of garlic mustard, in addition to the animal and fish residues, were discovered by way of microfossil analysis of carbonized food deposits from several pots discovered at archeological  sites in Denmark and Germany.  According to the archeologists, the sites date to the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.

“Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods 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 authors wrote.

Until now, scientists have analyzed starches that survive well in carbonized and non-carbonized residues, in order to test for the use of spices in primitive cooking.  The new research, which is described in an article that appears in PLOS ONE, suggests that the recovery of phytoliths – plant silicate deposits — offers the added option to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, which are not detectable via starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more irrepressible to ruin.

According to the researchers, “Based on comparisons to over 120 European and Asian species, our observations are consistent with phytolith morphologies observed in modern garlic mustard seed (Alliaria petiolata (M. Bieb) Cavara & Grande). As this seed has a strong flavour, little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots along with terrestrial and marine animal residues, these findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine.”

According to lead researcher Doctor Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research center at the University of York, “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 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.”

bThe research paper is entitled, “Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine,” and can be found at the PLOS ONE website.