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Researchers reveal hunter-gatherers' taste for spice

Date: 23/08/2013

Our early ancestors had a taste for spicy food, according to new research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Archaeologists at University of York, working with colleagues in Denmark, Germany and Spain, have found evidence of the use of spices in cuisine at the transition to agriculture. The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years.

The silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along with animal and fish residues were discovered through microfossil analysis of carbonised food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany. The pottery dated from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.

Previously scientists have analysed starches which survive well in carbonised and non-carbonised residues to test for the use of spices in prehistoric cooking. But the new research, which is reported in PLOS ONE, suggests that the recovery of phytoliths – silicate deposits from plants -- offers the additional possibility to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, not detectable using starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.

Lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research centre at the University of York, said: The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants, and the reasons for their cultivation, were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavour. As garlic mustard has a strong flavour but little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues, our findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine.

Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods in this region than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste.

The research also involved scientists at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats, Institución Milá i Fontanals, Spanish National Research Council, Barcelona, Spain; the Danish Agency for Culture, Copenhagen, Denmark; the Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, University of Kiel, Kiel, Germany.And Stiftung Schleswig-Holsteinische Landesmuseen, Schloβ Gottorf, Schleswig, Germany.

Notes to editors

  • For further information:

    David Garner, University of York 01904 322153 david.garner@york.ac.ukDanielle Moore-Chick, AHRC: 01793 416021 d.moore-chick@ahrc.ac.uk

  • The paper ‘Phytoliths in pottery reveal the use of spice in European prehistoric cuisine’ by Hayley Saul, Marco Madella, Anders Fischer, Aikaterini Glykou, Sönke Hartz, Oliver E. Craig is published in PLOS ONE.
  • For more information about BioArCh at the University of York, please visit their website.
  • The AHRC funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

 

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