(CNN) — Stone Age cooks were surprisingly sophisticated, combining a range of ingredients and using different techniques to prepare and flavor their meals, analysis of some of the earliest charred food remains suggests.

Plant material found in the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq, famous for a Neanderthal grave surrounded by flowers, and in the Franchthi cave in Greece, reveal that the prehistoric cuisine of Neanderthals and early humans modern foods was complex, with several steps, and that the foods used were diverse, according to a new study published in the academic journal Antiquity.

wild walnuts; The peas; the nettle; a legume with edible pods; and the herbs were often combined with legumes such as beans or lentils, the most commonly identified ingredient, and sometimes with wild mustard. To make the plants more palatable, the legumes, which have a naturally bitter taste, were soaked, coarsely ground, or stone-mashed to remove the skin.

(From left to right) Food similar to bread was found in the Franchthi cave in Greece; In the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq, legume-rich foods were discovered with wild peas. Credit: Ceren Kabukcu

In the Shanidar cave, the researchers studied plant remains from 70,000 years ago, when the space was inhabited by Neanderthals, an extinct human species, and 40,000 years ago, when it was home to the first modern humans (Homo sapiens).

Charred food remains from the Franchthi cave date to 12,000 years ago, when it was also occupied by hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens.

Despite the distance in time and space, similar plants and cooking techniques were identified in both locations, which could suggest a shared culinary tradition, said the study’s lead author, Dr. Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool, UK.

Based on food remains analyzed by the researchers, Neanderthals, thick-browed hominids that disappeared around 40,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens appeared to use similar ingredients and techniques, he added, although wild mustard was only found in Shanidar cave. when it was occupied by Homo sapiens.

Neanderthals feeding legumes

View of the Shanidar cave, in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit: Chris Hunt

First processed foods

A bread-like substance was found in the Greek cave, although it was not clear what it was made of. According to Kabukcu, the evidence that ancient humans pounded and soaked legumes in the Shanidar cave 70,000 years ago is the first direct evidence outside of Africa of processing plants for food.

Kabukcu said he was surprised to find that prehistoric peoples combined plant ingredients in this way, an indication that flavor was clearly important. He expected to find only starchy plants, such as roots and tubers, which at first glance seem more nutritious and easier to prepare.

Much of the research on prehistoric diets has focused on whether early humans were predominantly meat eaters, but Kabukcu said it was clear they weren’t just munching on woolly mammoth steaks. Our ancient ancestors had a varied diet depending on where they lived, probably including a wide range of plants.

Neanderthal feeding

A Neanderthal home was unearthed in the Shanidar cave, where charred plant remains were also found. Credit: Graeme Barker

These creative culinary techniques were previously thought to have only emerged with the shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to humans’ orientation toward agriculture, known as the Neolithic transition, which happened between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Furthermore, the research suggests that life in the Stone Age was not just a brutal fight for survival, at least in these two places, and that prehistoric humans selectively ate a variety of different plants and understood their different performance profiles. taste.

John McNabb, a professor at the Center for Archeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, said that the scientific understanding of the Neanderthal diet has changed significantly “as we have moved away from the idea that they only ate huge amounts of game meat.

“More data from Shanidar are needed, but if these results are confirmed, Neanderthals ate legumes and some species in the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption. Sophisticated food preparation techniques had a much longer history. deeper than previously thought,” said McNabb, who was not involved in the research.

“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they did not deliberately extract all the nasty toxins. Some remained in the food, as suggested by the presence of the seed coats, that part of the seed where the bitterness is especially located. A flavor Chosen by Neanderthals”.

Tracing prehistoric microbiomes

Another study on prehistoric diets also published Tuesday looked at the oral microbiome of ancient humans — fungi, bacteria and viruses that reside in the mouth — using ancient DNA found in dental plaque.

Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, a postdoctoral researcher in Comparative Biomedicine and Food at the University of Padua, Italy, examined the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals who lived in prehistoric Italy over a period of 30,000 years, as well as the microscopic remains of food found. in the calcified plaque.

prehistoric diet diet

A human jaw was discovered at a Neolithic site in southern Italy. Credit: Andrea Quagliariello

Quagliariello and his team were able to identify trends in diet and culinary techniques, such as the introduction of fermentation and milk, and a shift toward greater carbohydrate reliance associated with an agriculture-based diet.

McNabb said it was impressive that the researchers had been able to track the changes over such a long period of time.

“What the study also does is support the growing idea that the Neolithic was not the sudden arrival of new subsistence practices and new cultures, as was thought. It appears to be a slower transition,” said McNabb, who was not involved in the study. study by email.