Prehistoric cooking may have been more complex than we thought, according to a study published last week in the journal Antiquity.
Researchers analyzed charred food remains at two locations—the Shanidar Cave in Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and the Franchthi Cave in Greece—to gain insight into how Neanderthals and early modern humans prepared food. They found evidence of cooking involving a variety of ingredients, processes and deliberate decisions.
“Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking—and thus of food culture—among Neanderthals,” Chris Hunt, an expert in cultural paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University and coordinator of the excavation, tells the Guardian’s Linda Geddes.
At the Shanidar Cave, the researchers analyzed food remains from approximately 70,000 years ago, when Neanderthals lived at the site. They also analyzed remains from around 40,000 years ago, when early modern humans lived there. At the Franchthi Cave, they analyzed food remnants that early modern humans who were hunter-gatherers consumed some 12,000 years ago.
At both archaeological sites, researchers identified similar plants and culinary practices, which may point to a shared food culture, says lead study author Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool, to CNN’s Katie Hunt.
The researchers’ analysis suggests that early modern humans and Neanderthals weren’t just consuming protein from animals; they had complex diets that consisted of a wide selection of plants and varied depending on location. They also used “a range of tricks to make their food more palatable” such as soaking and pounding, per a statement from the University of Liverpool.
“This study points to cognitive complexity and the development of culinary cultures in which flavors were significant from a very early date,” says Kabukcu in the statement. “Our work conclusively demonstrates the complexities in the early hunter-gatherer diet which are akin to modern food preparation practices. For example, wild nuts and grasses were often combined with pulses, like lentils, and wild mustard.”
John McNabb, an archaeologist at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton who was not involved in the research, tells CNN that our knowledge of the Neanderthal diet has greatly evolved “as we move away from the idea of [Neanderthals] just consuming huge quantities of hunted game meat.”
“More data is needed from Shanidar, but if these results are supported then Neanderthals were eating pulses and some species from the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption,” he adds. “Sophisticated techniques of food preparation had a much deeper history than previously thought.”
To further understand the Neanderthal diet, Hunt and his colleagues tried to recreate—and eat—a similar recipe using seeds found near the caves.
How did their creation turn out? Hunt tells the Guardian, “It made a sort of pancake-cum-flatbread which was really very palatable—a sort of nutty taste.”