Plant residues in cooking pots reveal the use of spices in prehistoric cuisine in northern Europe, according to research published August 21 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Hayley Saul and colleagues from the University of York.
Blackened deposits inside the pottery shards studied contained residues of microscopic plant silica bodies, called phytoliths, which resemble those found in modern-day garlic mustard seeds, a peppery mustard-flavored spice. Garlic mustard has little nutritional value, and the shards also contained residues of fats from a range of marine and terrestrial animals, as well as starchy plant foods, suggesting the spice was used to flavor these foods. The pottery shards, which are at least 6,100 years old, were recovered from sites in Denmark and Germany and date from a period when prehistoric people transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming.
Although garlic mustard was present locally, it is unclear whether the practice of using it as a spice originated in the western Baltic area or was derived from the Near East and brought to the region. Regardless of the origins of the practice, the study concludes, "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."
Saul elaborates, "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."
Citation: 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
Financial Disclosure: The Baltic Foragers and Early Farmers Ceramic Research Project is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project (AH/E008232/1). The AHRC website can be found at http://www.
Competing Interest Statement: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
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