Neanderthals Cooked From Shared Recipes, According To New Study

It appears we may have underestimated our Paleolithic ancestors. The long-held theory regarding our hunter-gatherer ancestors is that they struggled to survive, and subsisted on the meat they acquired from hunting, as well as what fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds they were able to forage. Indeed, Britannica notes that little sophistication was displayed by early hunter-gatherers, whose lifestyle and diet were largely motivated by hunger, rather than by any finer notions of flavor or culinary artistry.

But a study published in the journal Antiquity has challenged these long-held notions (via Cambridge University Press). Researchers believe, based on plant evidence from carbonized fossils found in two cave sites in Greece and Iraq, that our prehistoric ancestors actually did cook for flavor and were much better cooks than has previously been thought.

Yes, meat was a staple of diets during the Paleolithic period. In fact, according to National Geographic, the significant growth in brain size that occurred in our ancestors, homo erectus, over a million years ago, was directly attributable to the developed process of cooking. But the new study from Antiquity shows that hunter-gatherers had a diverse diet and engaged in time-consuming food preparation to achieve a variety of contrasting flavors. The similarity of food preparation at the two cave sites also suggests a tradition of shared recipes.

Shared ingredients show creative cooking for flavor

The food fossils examined for the Antiquity study were found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq and at Franchthi Cave in Greece, per Cambridge University Press. These food remains cover a wide time frame and provide a rich look into the culinary practices of Paleothic hunter-gatherers. The Shanidar cave is particularly interesting in that it offers fossil evidence from both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (modern humans). The former died out around 40,000 years ago, per BBC.

The study proves that humans and Neanderthals ate beans and lentils, observes CNN, which are "pulses" that require a great deal of preparation, including soaking and grinding. The human hunter-gatherer diet was also shown to include wild mustard, as well as root vegetables and grasses, according to Antiquity. One of the study's authors, Ceren Kabukcu, noted that it was clear that these hunter-gatherers were cooking for flavor and knew enough about certain profiles to balance the resulting taste in their meals, per CNN. In fact, certain toxins seem to have been kept in their foods purposefully to retain bitter flavor. 

This research is changing the perception that advanced cooking preparations and culinary traditions only took off with the advent of agriculture and that "it appears to be a slower transition," says John McNabb, a professor from the University of Southampton (via CNN).