An excavation at a Neanderthal site in northern Iraq has led to the discovery of the oldest food remains discovered, so far.
Archaeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the burnt remains of a 70,000 year-old flatbread from the Shanidar Cave, 500 miles north of Baghdad in the Zagros Mountains of the Kurdistan region. The find challenges the long-held belief that Neanderthals survived on a primitive diet of raw meat or uncooked plants but were, in fact, foodies.
"The old stereotype is that Neanderthals were less intelligent than modern humans and that they had a largely meat-based diet. Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – amongst Neanderthals," explained Chris Hunt, a Professor of Cultural Paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University, who coordinated the excavation.
"Because the Neanderthals had no pots, we presume that they soaked their seeds in a fold of an animal skin," he added.
According to the findings published in Cambridge University's Antiquity journal, one of the four fragments of the food remains "strongly resembles experimental preparations and archaeobotanical examples of charred bread-like foods or finely ground cereal meals".
Charred food remains were also recovered from Franchthi Cave in southern Greece, which was occupied by early modern humans about 12,000 years ago.
Microscopic examination of the charred food remains revealed the use of pounded pulses as a common ingredient in cooked plant foods. The authors argue that plants with bitter and astringent tastes were key ingredients of Palaeolithic cuisines in South-west Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean.
"We present evidence, for the first time, of soaking and pounding pulse seeds by both Neanderthals and early modern humans (Homo sapiens) at both sites, and during both phases at Shanidar Cave," said Dr Ceren Kabukcu, an Archaeobotanist at the University of Liverpool, who led the study.
"We also find evidence of 'mixtures' of seeds included in food items and argue that there were some unique preferences for specific plant flavours."