Prehistoric Europeans Used Spices
August 22, 2013

Prehistoric European Chefs Like To Spice It Up Too

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

While today’s cutting-edge chefs use liquid nitrogen and futuristic food additives to achieve a desired effect, cooks have been manipulating meals as far back as the hunter-gatherer days.

According to a new discovery being reported this week in the journal PLOS ONE, prehistoric chefs in modern day Denmark and Germany used mustard garlic as a food spice at least 6,000 years ago. Study researchers say tests on ancient pottery shards revealed evidence of the spice in meat and fish fat residues. They believe that the plant was probably used as a spice since it does not have any real nutritional value.

"This is the earliest evidence, as far as I know, of spice use in this region in the Western Baltic; something that has basically no nutritional value, but has this value in a taste sense," study leader Hayley Saul, an archeologist from the University of York in the United Kingdom, told BBC News.

On pottery shards that were dated to between 5,800 and 6,150 years ago, the team of European researchers found microscopic evidence of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, which can be used to trace the identity of the plants that they came from. The pottery phytoliths traced to garlic mustard were found predominantly on the interior face of the pottery shards, indicating the plant had a culinary role.

Results of the new study challenge the previous notions of simplistic eating habits by hunter-gatherers. Saul said she believes her team’s findings point to something much more like cuisine as we know it today.

"That's quite a new idea for hunter-gatherer archaeology in Europe," she said, noting that the plant seed were probably crushed in order to extract maximum flavor.

"Actually to get the flavor out you have to crush it really,” she said. “I suspect that if they hadn't been crushing the seeds, we would probably find more intact seeds in residues."

The new find represents the earliest evidence of spice use in Europe. However, previous research has shown that spices were already common in the Middle East much earlier.

"There's a cave in Israel where coriander has been found, and that's dated to around 23,000 years ago,” Saul said. “But it's very difficult to build up a picture of exactly how it's used. It's linking it to cooking that's quite important.”

The York archeologist said the new study reveals details of a more sophisticated hunter-gatherer culture than many had envisioned.

"I think it was just really creative, and we often don't give hunter-gatherer cultures in the past credit for exactly how inventive and creative they were with things,” she said. "It's often seen as being a period of culinary hardship where people were really struggling, but actually, its people really knew their environments, and knew how to make the best with what they've got.”

Saul added that the methods used to uncover evidence of spice use in prehistoric Europe could translate into similar discoveries in the future.

“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,” she said.