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Ancient Europeans had a taste for spicy food

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers in northern Europe appear to have been using spices in their cooking pots 7,000 years ago. Research conducted by University of York archaeologists and colleagues Denmark, Germany and Spain shows that our European ancestors had a taste for spicy food.

The researchers found traces of garlic mustard on charred remains of pottery, at least 6100 years old, found at sites in Denmark and Germany dating from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture. The study concludes that "Plant microfossil analysis has opened a new avenue in the study of prehistoric culinary practice in northern European temperate climates. Further, it is now established that the habit of enhancing and altering the flavor of calorie rich staples was part of European cuisine as far back as the 7th millennia BC."

Reported in PLOS ONE*, microfossil analysis of carbonised food deposits from the pots revealed silicate remains of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) together with animal and fish residues.

Previous research has analyzed starches to try and find evidence for the use of spices as they survive well in carbonised and non-carbonised residues. The new research seems to show that recovery of phytoliths - silicate deposits from plants more resilient than starches to destruction from charring - also allows identification of leafy or woody seed material used as spices. The blackened deposits found inside the pottery shards studied contained phytoliths resembling those found in modern-day garlic mustard seeds, a peppery mustard-flavored spice. It has little nutritional value, suggesting it was used to flavor food. Th garlic mustard was available locally but there is no indication as to the origins of the practice - it could have been brought from the near east.

According to Dr Hayley Saul, of the the University of York's BioArCH research centre:

"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."

"Until now it has been widely accepted that the calorific content of foods was of primary importance in the decisions by hunter-gatherers about what to eat. Both the actual finding of seed phytoliths consistent with garlic mustard spice, and the method of discovery, open up a new avenue for the investigation of prehistoric cuisines."

* Saul H, Madella M, Fischer A, Glykou A, Hartz S, et al. (2013) Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070583



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