Though 15th-century adventurers Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama embarked on their historic voyages in part to feed the insatiable European demand for spices, humans’ use of spice goes back far, far longer than that. Classical texts testify to the widespread use of spices in European cuisine at least 5,000 years ago, but it is not known when exactly the practice began. Now, after analyzing Neolithic clay cooking pots found in northern Europe, researchers from Britain’s University of York have discovered what appears to be the earliest known evidence of humans using spices to flavor their food. These ancient crock pots, which date back some 6,100 years, contain carbonized remnants of fish and meat, along with evidence of ground seeds from the garlic mustard plant, which would have added a pungent spice to the simple fare.
Older samples of spices such as cumin and coriander–some of them dating back as many as 23,000 years–have been found at sites in southern Europe, the Middle East and India. In these cases, however, it has been hard for scientists to determine whether they were used in cooking, or limited to medicinal or decorative use. These newest finds, recovered from Neolithic (Stone Age) dwellings in what is now Germany and Denmark, provide the earliest conclusive evidence of spice’s use in ancient cuisine.
A team of researchers from the University of York in Britain conducted an analysis of eight clay cooking vessels found at three sites, which they say date from between 5,800 and 6,150 years ago. The researchers, who published their findings in the current issue of PLOS ONE, found carbonized remnants of ancient meals stuck to the pots. Most of them consisted of fish, while the meat fats identified were likely to have come from roe deer or red deer, which would have been prevalent in the area at the time. Along with the fish or meat, the researchers also found the ground seeds of the garlic mustard plant, which when cooked along with the meat or fish over an open wood fire would have added a savory taste to the simple meal.
Compared to animal bones, plant matter (including seeds) don’t usually last too long in archaeological samples. In order to identify the seeds of the garlic mustard plant (Alliaria petiolata) in the samples they took, the scientists looked for microscopic traces of plant-based silica known as phytoliths, which tend to last longer than the plant cells themselves. They compared their findings to the phytolith records of 120 different species and were able to identify them as garlic mustard. As the garlic mustard plant has basically no nutritional value, researchers concluded it must have been included to add taste to the food. The ancient food remnants contained no whole garlic mustard seeds, and by recreating the ancient recipe, they found that crushing the seeds of the plant releases their flavor.
The researchers’ findings challenge earlier assumptions about European hunter-gatherers of the Neolithic period, which is that they were concerned only with finding the most calorie-dense source of food for themselves. Yet while the users of these ancient cooking pots displayed ingenuity in flavoring their food with the garlic mustard seed, they don’t seem to have eaten an especially varied diet, as the researchers found no evidence of other spices across all the sites they examined.