Prehistoric Europeans Spiced Up Their Life

By: The Scribe on Monday, September 9, 2013

spicesAbout 6,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers in ancient Europe collected garlic mustard seeds and mixed them together in their pottery dishes, and…

Wait a minute. Hunter-gatherers… using pottery?

Let’s back this up a bit.

Archaeologist Oliver Craig and his team from the University of York studied microscopic flecks of plant-based silica that they found on ancient pottery shards from Germany and Denmark. The pottery was scorched by fire at campsites approximately 5,800-6,150 years ago.

According to Craig’s team, the seed specks they studied belong to the garlic mustard plant, which are devoid of nutritional value but have a strong, peppery taste. The pottery also contained residue of animal fat—deer and fish, most likely—which led the team to hypothesize that whoever cooked the food used garlic mustard seed to add flavor to their food.

Why is this important?

While the archaeological record does contain older evidence of spices, no other site has connected spices and cooking as directly as this finding. In the field, it can be difficult for an archaeobotanist to determine whether plants were deliberately used in this type of situation or if they were naturally occurring, but this particular finding is quite clear.

“What we’ve got is absolutely secure evidence that these [European hunter-gatherers] were taking these plant products and putting them into a pot and cooking with them,” said Craig.

garlic mustardClearly, hunter-gatherers didn’t always choose their food just for nutritional value, as previously thought. They were, on occasion, clearly able to concern themselves with taste! The archaeological team who made this discovery suspects that the plant was likely used only when it came into bloom—which may possibly have happened with other plant spices as well, though not all spices are detectible in the archaeological record.

More importantly, the spice residue was found on the inside of pottery shards that belonged to large, clay vessels… definitely not the kind of thing that hunter-gatherers would be able to haul around on a daily basis!

Craig has suggested that these prehistoric Europeans instead had pottery caches at different locations along their travel route—essentially supply stations that could be used at different times of the year as they moved with the seasons and available food. They may have then used different spices for their food according to local availability!

When did European hunter-gatherers begin using pottery in the first place, and why? That’s another question entirely, which Craig’s team may study in the future.

(For further reading, check out the study published last month by Craig and his team in the journal PLOS One!)


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