Oldest cooked remains ever found suggest Neanderthals were voracious eaters

if you thought Neanderthal Surviving on a diet of wild berries and raw animal meat, think again. Burnt remains of the world’s oldest cooked food have been found in a cave complex in northern Iraq, leading to speculation that Neanderthals may have been fond of food.

“Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – among Neanderthals,” said Chris Hunt, a professor of cultural paleontology Liverpool John Moores Universitywho coordinated the excavation.

A microscopic image of the charred remains of a meal rich in pulses from the Shanidhar Caves.
A microscopic image of the charred remains of a meal rich in pulses from the Shanidhar Caves. Photograph: Ceren Kabukcu/University of Liverpool/PA

Hunt and his colleagues tried to recreate one of the recipes using seeds collected from nearby caves. “It made a kind of pancake-cum-flatbread that was actually very tasty — kind of nutty flavor,” Hunt said.

The remains of burnt food – the oldest ever found – were recovered from the Shanidar cave site, a Neanderthal dwelling 500 miles north of Baghdad in the Zagros Mountains. Believed to be around 70,000 years old, they were discovered in one of several ancient hearths in the caves.

Shanidhar Caves where remains of the world's oldest flatbread were found.
Shanidhar Caves where remains of the world’s oldest flatbread were found. Photograph: Chris Hunt/Liverpool John Moores University/PA

The team also used a scanning electron microscope to analyze fragments of ancient burnt food recovered from Franchthi Cave in southern Greece, which was occupied by early modern humans about 12,000 years ago.

Taken together, these findings suggest that the Palaeolithic diet was a varied and complex form of prehistoric cooking, involving multiple stages of food preparation.

“We present for the first time evidence of soaking and pounding of pulse seeds by both Neanderthals and early modern humans (Homo sapiens) at both sites, and during both phases at Shanidar Cave,” said Dr Seren Kabukku, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool who led the study.

“We also find evidence for ‘mixing’ of seeds incorporated into foods and argue that there were some unique preferences for specific plant flavours.”

research, published in ancient time, in addition to meat, adds to the growing evidence of plant consumption by both early modern humans and Neanderthals. Wild nuts and grasses were often combined with pulses, such as lentils, and wild mustard.

Hunt said: “Because Neanderthals did not have pots, we believe that they soaked their seeds in the folds of some animal skin.”

However, unlike modern cooks, Neanderthals did not appear to have peeled their seeds to remove the outer covering—a process that largely eliminated the bitter-tasting compounds. This may suggest that they wanted to reduce but not eliminate the natural flavors of the pulses.

Considering they crushed the seeds using local rocks, the final product may have been a bit gritty. “After sampling the recreated recipe, I think we can understand why Neanderthal teeth were in such poor condition,” Hunt said.

Read full story at the guardian.com

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