Scientists have found evidence that Neanderthals—the relatives of modern humans who lived thousands of years ago—may not have been as primitive as previously believed. In fact, they may have originated in the artisanal food category. According to a study published in the journal AntiquityResearchers analyzed burnt pieces of food at a Neanderthal excavation site and found they were remnants of the world’s first “flatbread,” a recipe devised by the ancient figures for pleasing flavor.
“Our findings are the first real indications of complex cooking—and thus of food culture—among Neanderthals,” said Chris Hunt of Liverpool John Moores University, a study co-author. Read on to find out why.
“A Prehistoric Falafel”
The findings argue against the typical picture of Neanderthals as unsophisticated. “The old stereotype is that Neanderthals were less intelligent than modern humans and that they had a largely meat-based diet,” explains Hunt. On the contrary, the researchers found evidence that Neanderthals created recipes and cooking techniques to create a kind of unleavened artisanal bread. Hunt describes it as a flatbread. The study’s leader, Ceren Kabukcu of Liverpool University, compared it to a prehistoric falafel.
The Ingredients: “Very Palatable”
“It seems the Neanderthals smashed, or ground, then soaked a mix of wild grains and grasses, wild pulses including wild lentils, wild pistachios and, at times, wild grass seeds and grass pea fragments, then cooked the resulting mix on hot stones, ” said Hunt. The study is the earliest example of ingredients being blended together and cooked, possibly with regard to how the result would taste.
Hunt and the research team even attempted to re-create the Neanderthal recipe. “It made a sort of pancake-cum-flatbread which was really very palatable – a sort of nutty taste,” said Hunt.
Wealth of Information in Cave
The new study center on Shanidar Cave, a Neanderthal dwelling 500 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq, in the Zagros Mountains. The site, believed to be 70,000 years old, was first excavated in the 1950s. There, archaeologist Ralph Solecki discovered the remains of ten Neanderthal men, women, and children.
Those initial findings suggested that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than given credit for. One Neanderthal appeared to have survived several injuries, possibly because of primitive medical care, and another’s grave seemed to contain remnants of flowers, suggesting a burial ritual.
Ancient Leftovers Analyzed
To come to their conclusions, the researchers used an electron microscope to analyze fragments of burnt food discovered at Shanidar and another cave in Greece. In other words, ancient leftovers. “The charred food fragments from Franchthi Cave are the earliest of their kind recovered in Europe, from a hunter-gatherer occupation around 12,000 years ago,” said Kabukcu.
“Those from Shanidar Cave are the earliest in southwest Asia, from Neanderthal and human layers dating to seventy and forty thousand years ago respectively.”
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Surprisingly Creative Cooks
Ultimately, the study found that human and Neanderthal food, at least, in this case, aren’t all that different. “Our work conclusively demonstrates the deep antiquity of plant foods involving more than one ingredient and processed with multiple preparation steps,” said Kabukcu.
“This is the cool thing: we don’t tend to associate hunter-gatherers with creativity when it comes to what they’re going to eat,” she added. “The fact that we found mixtures [of ingredients] suggests that there’s some sort of planning and thinking that went into the combination. And maybe it was the flavors that were driving some of the selection.”