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First evidence of spices used almost 7.000 years ago

Garlic mustard was used as a spice 7,000 years ago, as archeologists from England, Spain, Denmark and Germany found out.  The scientists have analyzed microfossils of  food deposits from pots found at three archeological sites: Akonge and Steno (Denmark) and Neustadt (Germany).

One of the pottery fragments with the microfossils of food deposits and phytolits analysed. Image: Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen Schloss Gottorf The discovery, which was recently reported in PLOS ONE, breaks with the traditional vision of prehistoric cooking and confirms that the use of spices is much older than previously thought. It is, also, the first evidence that hunter-gatherer groups used spices.

Garlic mustard is a plant with a strong flavor but little nutritional value. Marco Madella, one of the authors of the work explains that it has always been assumed that those societies, which were still hunter-gatherers but were starting to practice agriculture, had less complex cuisines and food was mainly acquired for its energetic value rather than taste”.

Madella is a scientist at the CSIC’s Institució Milà i Fontanals, and at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA). He adds: “the fact that we found the garlic mustard together with meat and fish residues gives us strong evidence that the plant was used to add its spicy taste to the food. And we know that residues are from cooking because they are from charred remains from pottery”.   

Previous studies had found charred seeds of poppy and coriander in prehistoric pots, but never as food residues, and therefore we cannot be sure that they were used for cooking.

New methodologies to re-read the past

What has made possible the discovery is the analysis of phytoliths. These are fossils made of opaline silica (similar to glass), which is very resilient to decay. Phytolits are formed by biogenic silica deposition in plant tissues, which acquires the morphology of the vegetal cells. This character gives the possibility  of  identifying these plant fossils at a taxonomic level.

This methodology has had a strong development in the last 10 years. Scientists have improved their knowledge about the process of plant silicification and about the taxonomic information of phytoliths and now, adds Madella, “we can identify many plants  through phytoliths, which was impossible before”.

Knowledge about prehistoric societies is strongly affected by the analytic methodologies available. Until recently, the plant residues that could be identified were almost exclusively charred seeds or wood.

But, as Madella warns, “everything that was used in the past has not arrived until our days. The seeds and foods that were consumed more often are more likely to have reached us. Normally, the residues of plants that were consumed occasionally or that did not come in contact with fire –charred residues are more resilient to decay- are unlikely to preserve for a long time. The exception, says Madella, are the rare cases of remains preserved under water or in extremely dry sites (e.g a desert).

The phytoliths analysis helps to re-read the past and to recover information that was until recently undetectable

Previously, scientists have analyzed starches that survived in prehistoric pottery. In the current work, phytolith analysis gives the additional possibility of  identifying the green parts (e.g. leaves) of the used plants, something that is unfeasible using starch analysis.  “It is like taking a picture of the cooking ingredients, a picture that is very near to what the recipe was”. The phytoliths analysis helps to re-read the past and to recover information that was until recently undetectable.

Knowing these aspects of the past can help in the understanding of the behavior of these prehistoric groups, their movements, their commerce … To know one more ingredient of their cooking tradition it does not seem to be much information but, as Madella points out, “it is like a piece of the big puzzle of our past and little by little we can get the full picture”.

This research, which has been led by the University of York (UK), has also involved scientists at the Danish Agency for Culture (Denmark), the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology at University of Kiel (Germany), the Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen (Germany).

Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. Hayley Saul, Marco Madella, Anders Fischer, Aikaterini Glykou, önke Hartz, Oliver E. Craig http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070583