Bitter vetch isn’t on many menus these days. Also known as ervil, it’s a member of the pea family and was commonly consumed throughout the Middle East and beyond in prehistoric times. Vetch seeds have been found in the context of the earliest cultivation in the Near East. The plant is considered easy to cultivate, but the main snags to its consumption are taste and toxicity. Processing is the ticket: soaking, pounding and charring.
Now a new paper by Ceren Kabukcu and colleagues in the journal of Antiquity shows that the technique of charring objectionable vegetables to detoxify them and render them toothsome goes back tens of thousands of years, and was apparently even used by Neanderthals in Iraq.
Until recent years, many assumed that human variants like the Neanderthals (and early humans too) were hairy brutes who ate meat almost exclusively. Every part of that description is apparently wrong: not lunks, and they ate plants too.
Analysis of processed, charred plant matter found in two prehistoric contexts – Franchthi Cave in Greece, occupied by humans; and the famous Shanidar Cave in Iraq, occupied by Neanderthals – reveals the secrets of Paleolithic vegetable cookery, as well as apparently a penchant for bitter, astringent tastes.
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Once upon a time, when researching plant consumption in the Paleolithic, researchers focused on the starchy foods on which we dote. (Some vetch variants have a nice edible root too, by the way.) But the realization gradually dawned in the last 20 years that pre-agricultural societies from the eastern Mediterranean to Eurasia tapped a much wider range of plants.
Sites from the Middle Paleolithic onward show evidence of consumption of bitter wild almonds, a rich source of cyanide; tannin-rich wild pistachios from terebinth trees, which reportedly taste like turpentine; bitter mustard leaves; and wild pulses including said vetch, some of which abound in neurotoxins. All need multiple steps of preparation to render them edible, or at least not deadly.
The inference, says the team: foragers as of the Middle Paleolithic onward, sapiens or otherwise, must have developed preparation and cooking techniques to render these plants safe to eat.
Vetch aside, note that by and large we are still eating the same things we ate when the first farmers coaxed the first crops out of the land, Prof. Avi Gopher of Tel Aviv University told Haaretz in the past: the same cereals, the same legumes.
When people began to grow food, they grew complementary crops that provided the full range of vitamins, minerals and nutrients they needed to survive. Everywhere farming began included nutritionally complementary species. Rice and lentils, maize and beans, etc., according to Gopher.
How would they have known about nutritionally complementary foods? Let us not condescend. After hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering, humans knew nature and wisely chose the species they wanted to domesticate, Gopher posits. As for the taste, some like sour, bitter flavors and also, when something makes us feel good, we may begin to appreciate its charms. Now let us return to how to cook these things.
A jug of wine, a loaf of proto-bread and thou
Evidence of paleo-plant cuisine is ample, so why choose two sites so distant in time and location? “My aim was to examine a range of hunter-gatherer sites covering different geographic regions and time periods,” Kabukcu explains. “I was initially looking for differences, to see if practices in plant use change dramatically with time, or if we see different traditions forming in different sites/regions.
“I work on a number of different sites, but so far found evidence of carbonized food remains at these two. Initially I thought about evaluating them separately (they are separated by tens of thousands of years, as noted). But once I saw the similarities in plant components and some of the preparation methods, I thought this similarity – connecting the two sites across space and time – was important to highlight.”
In fact, the charred plants at Shanidar are among the earliest finds of their kind discovered to date in southwest Asia and Europe, the researchers say.
Both caves were used over long periods of time. Greece’s Franchthi Cave was occupied from the Upper Paleolithic, from about 38,000 to 6,000 years ago – which means, by sapiens. While the cave’s excavation began in 1969, the charred non-wood plant remains were only noticed in 2017 and have now been dated to the cave’s later days, i.e., from about 13,100 years ago onward to 11,400 years ago.
Shanidar in Iraq is famous for its occupation by Neanderthals who may have buried their dead with flowers. One of the layers to feature charred veg aggregate dates to the Middle Paleolithic. Five more surfaced in samples from the Upper Paleolithic about 42,500 to 35,000 years ago. At the very least, the earliest burned-veg mush there was cooked by Neanderthals about 75,000 to 70,000 years ago.
Wondrously, the later samples of charred plants at Shanidar were likely to have been made by sapiens using the same technique – though they added mustards and terebinth nuts, which were not found in the Neanderthal context of the cave, Kabukcu notes. “At this point, we think that the later samples (42,500 to 35,000 years ago) are very likely to be associated with Homo sapiens. At least so far as we can link cultural traditions of stone tool production with the early modern humans.” More evidence will be needed to state that definitively.
“The evidence from one fragment supports this idea that Neanderthals, much like the later Homo sapiens (early modern humans), were cooking plants. Our evidence is also supported by previous studies that were done on plant starches trapped in the tartar preserved on Neanderthal teeth found in burials from the same [Shanidar] site,” Kabukcu says.
The researchers add that they tested to make sure the burned plant matter didn’t arise from burned feces, and say it didn’t. They did that because, they explain, carbonized dung is frequently found in archaeobotanical samples.
The plant types involved in the burned masses weren’t grass and leaves; the fragments of seeds and plant cells are irregular in form and porous, indicating processing. In short, they are pretty sure this is burned veg food.
At Franchthi, the archaeologists discern hallmarks of soaking and heating, and also coarse grinding or pounding (though not as fine as to make flour). They think the humans would either soak dry seeds or use fresh ones that had a higher moisture content; pound them; then char them. Future reenactment of the postulated cooking methodology can tell us more, the archaeologists stress. Meanwhile, they could identify lentil, bitter vetch and grass pea, as well as already-known foods such as almonds, oats, barley and wild pistachios, among the plant-based foods in the cave.
One sample at Franchthi characterized by unusual textures leads the researchers to surmise that maybe somebody in that Greek cave was grinding more finely – and maybe even having a proto-stab at making proto-bread.
It bears noting that charred food fragments found in the Black Desert of Jordan from 14,400 years ago were identified as exactly that: early bread that predated agriculture itself. It was not leavened – perhaps it would be better compared with a cracker. Asked if the Franchthi fragment could be compared to the Black Desert one, Kabukcu responds: not exactly.
“It looks fairly similar,” she says. But it just wasn’t preserved well enough to say more at this point, apart from suggesting that it looks similar to previously reported carbonized food items interpreted as bread. It could also be something akin to a batter, pancake or something soup/porridge-like made from finer ground plants (the possibility of this diversity was recently highlighted in a few papers on the topic).”
Moving onto Shanidar, five charred food masses from the Upper Paleolithic all consisted of crushed, fused remains of pulses – including possibly vetch, wild mustard and wild pistachio.
The one single fragment from the Neanderthal layer contains pulses, seed coats and, unlike the others, cells that look like they came from grasses too. And here we have the earliest known direct evidence of Paleolithic plant cookery in the region, leading to the conclusion that the ancients were foraging very specifically.
Additional evidence of early plant processing comes from Israel’s Kebara Cave on Mount Carmel, where evidence of cooked vetch, grass pea and lentils from the Middle Paleolithic has also been found. A Late Paleolithic collection at the El Wad archaeological site on the same mountain also features vetch and lentils. Ditto Ohalo II by the Sea of Galilee, where archaeologists found very early brush huts and evidence that the people also ate wild grasses over 20,000 years ago.
Moving onto the Late Paleolithic Palegawra Cave in Iraq, researchers identified a relatively diverse range of foraged plants including wild pulses, grasses, nuts, tubers and mustards.
The authors cite several more examples and conclude that there is ample evidence that plants, not only animals, were being cooked on the fire as far back as tens of thousands of years ago.
At Paglicci Cave in Italy – recently featured in a story about prehistoric dental caries due to consumption of carbs – archaeologists have found evidence suggesting the processing and cooking of wild oats and also bitter oak acorns.
The team stresses that most of the charred plant bits indicate that grinding or pounding was coarse, resulting in a range of fragment sizes. This could not have produced what we think of as flour; only a rougher grain that would produce a porridge-like meal. Yet some of the charred plant masses from Franchthi do seem finer and more homogenous, which indicates the possible use of flat grinding stones. Or that the seeds were properly boiled and mashed.
One wonders how seeds or anything else was boiled in pre-pottery societies. We don’t actually know, but one possibility cited by some is tough bags made of hide, i.e., sort of leather. That is how Neanderthals are thought to have boiled a deer foot in Germany 51,000 years ago. Or hide-lined pits filled with water that would be heated by tossing in stones heated in the fire, though potential cooking pits are seldom found in association with Neanderthal sites.
Eat your greens?
A moment on flavor. Some of these plants – notably bitter vetch and grasses – have high concentrations of bitter, astringent substances that can be mitigated or neutralized by soaking and boiling, though removing the seed coat is the most effective technique to improve their taste.
The indication is that at both Shanidar and Franchthi, these foods were soaked, which would have helped to remove the tannins and alkaloids. However, not all seed fragments, where the bitter chemicals accrue, were removed. This indicates that either the Paleolithic cooks were slobs or they were left in the dish intentionally. Indeed, more and more studies are suggesting an ancient penchant for bitter- and astringent-tasting plant foods from as early as the Middle Paleolithic, when variant humans roamed the land. It’s not a huge stretch: note the hordes of modern-day people who crave a lovely small cup of bitter espresso.
Kabukcu pooh-poohs the idea that they ate them because they had to.
“There is plenty of evidence from both Franchthi and Shanidar (and elsewhere) that they had access to wild grasses and tubers, etc. Franchthi contains plenty of carbonized wild oat seeds, and both our findings and the results of ancient tartar analysis showed that grasses were consumed at Shanidar,” she says.
“Elsewhere, some iconic hunter-gatherer sites often contain evidence for both grasses, tubers and pulses. A well-known example is Ohalo II, where there is [much] evidence for wild grasses used in abundance, but supplemented by oak acorns, wild almond and some wild pulses. So, all in all, I think there’s fairly good evidence that some of these flavors were incorporated into foods by choice.”