60-Second Science

Ancient Europeans Added Zing To Meals

Prehistoric pots provide evidence that Europeans were spicing their food some 6,000 years ago. Cynthia Graber reports.

Spicy, tangy, sharp, complex—spices add vibrancy to modern meals. Prehistoric cuisine, however, was thought of as, well, bland, based on scientists’ focusing on the energy value of our ancestors’ food: you catch the caribou, you cook the caribou, you eat the caribou.

But bland is now a bygone view. Because researchers have found evidence in prehistoric pots that add spice, literally, to that ancient world. The study is in the journal PLoS ONE. [Hayley Saul et al., Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine]

Archaeologists analyzed the remains of cooking pots at three sites in Northern Europe from more than 6000 years ago, during the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

They found what are called phytoliths. These are mineralized bits of plant residue. And some of the phytoliths closely resemble modern-day garlic mustard seeds. Such seeds have little nutritional value, but lend a sharp peppery bite to foods.

Researchers had previously identified aromatic substances in really leftover food—dating back around 5,000 years. Anything earlier than that, though, was tough to discern. But these phytoliths have now provided what the researchers say is the earliest known use of spice in cuisine. Bon appetite!

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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