Food In Canada

Early ancestors liked to spice things up

By Food in Canada magazine staff   

Food In Canada spices

Scientists in the U.K. have uncovered evidence that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic ancestors didn’t just use plants for energy requirements; they also used them to flavour their food

York, U.K. – It looks like our early ancestors weren’t so different from humans today.

They liked their food to be flavourful and it turns out they liked to spice things up.

Archeologists from the University of York in the U.K. found evidence of the use of spices in their cuisine.

In fact, they found traces of garlic mustard on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years – right around the time our ancestors were transitioning to agriculture from hunter-gathering.


The silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) along with animal and fish residues were discovered through microfossil analysis of carbonized food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany.

Previously scientists analyzed starches, which survive well in carbonized and non-carbonized 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. These are not detectable using starch analysis. Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.

Not just for energy

Previously, explains lead researcher Dr. Hayley Saul of the BioArCH research centre at the University of York, our Neolithic and pre-Neolithic ancestors used plants for their energy requirements.

But the archeologists discovered that the garlic mustard has a strong flavour and little nutritional value. And it was found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues.

These findings, says Saul, 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,” she says.

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

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