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Hot off a rock - a Neanderthal falafel

"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."

Ruth Schuster/Haaretz

This is for David who is a Neanderthal fanatic. Not that I really want to encourage him in his obsession. But yes - this is for you DD.

Via my Guardian newsletter I learnt today that recent research by one Dr. Ceren Kabukcu of Liverpool University, and published in the journal Antiquity, shows that the Neanderthals did more than roast a hunk of meat on a fire and eat raw fruit and vegetables. It seems they cooked plant based food as well, and even more astonishing were a bit picky about what they chose to cook.

Ever so mildly coincidental because I have been musing of late, in my head, on who first made bread, and how did they cook it - and indeed, did the Aboriginals cook bread and how because they did not have metal? At least that is my understanding. I was going to look into it but the above picture confirms one of the thoughts that I had - on a hot rock.

Having read The Guardian article I then went for corroboration on the net and found that indeed this quite a mind-blowing discovery. The most detailed article that I found on the subject - well other than a very learned journal article - was written by a lady called Ruth Schuster on an Israeli website called Haaretz - if you want to read further into it than you should have a look.

Fundamentally Dr. Kabukcu, an archaeologist, concentrated on two sites - a cave in Iraq which was inhabited by Neanderthals some 75,000-70,000 years ago, and one in Greece which was inhabited by homo sapiens in the period between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. He looked at them both to see if there was anything they had in common. I suppose he was wondering whether homo sapiens had learnt anything from the Neanderthals, although, I would not swear to this. What he actually said was:

“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."

On the left Shanidar Cave in the Kurdistan area of Iraq and on the right the Franchthi Cave in Greece.

In the caves they found charred remains of vegetables. Looking at these under an electron microscope (Greece on the left and Iran on the right) - they found the later one to be more bread like - i.e. more cereals and the Neanderthals one to be more pulse based.

As an aside these discoveries show how, as technology improves we learn more and more. These fragments were not noticed until relatively recently and when the caves were first discovered they probably would not have been able to learn as much about what they contained as they do now.

And what was in the mix? Well:

"a typical dish would probably have contained a pounded pulp of pulses, nuts and grass seeds, bound together with water and flavoured with bitter tannins from the seed coats of pulses such as beans or peas, and the sharp taste of wild mustard." Dr. Ceren Kabukcu

The plants most often mentioned were - from left to right - wild mustard, wild pistachios and vetch. Plus grasses - not cereals - just wild grass.

"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." Ruth Schuster/Haaretz

There would not have been salt though as there was none in the area. The thing is that lots of these plants contained toxins and so they had to find ways of removing the toxins. Apparently this was best done by soaking them in water and then charring them. The soaking removed some of the husks and so on and also, of course, softened them. How did they soak them? One theory is in a leather pouch - maybe a natural stone basin?

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." Ruth Schuster/Haaretz

Hence the idea that it was a choice based on taste and preference. Having removed the toxins the bitter taste remained and perhaps they liked that.

Then they were all pounded to a coarse paste - all of the articles I read used the word porridge like, rather than flour. Coarse. And finally it would have been bound together with water, shaped and cooked. Our intrepid Guardian science correspondent Linda Geddes cooked hers on a hot rock as you can see in here, and I guess this is what the Neanderthals would have done too. It's hard to imagine any other way. The paste would have fallen apart if impaled on sticks I am guessing.

It's a lot of hard work. First you have to gather your ingredients, then you have to soak them, pound them, sort out some of the stuff you didn't want perhaps, and then cook. Choices were made - particularly that bitter flavour - all the articles I read commented on that. And let's face it bitter is fashionable in these days too is it not? There's the previously mentioned coffee, but let's not forget all those bitter leaves that are so fashionable - rocket, chicory, radicchio ... sumac, angostura bitters - I'm sure you can think of many more.

"all in all, I think there’s fairly good evidence that some of these flavours were incorporated into foods by choice.” Dr. Ceren Kabukcu/University of Liverpool

So what did Linda Geddes experimental patty taste like? Not bad it seems.

"The result was surprisingly tasty and complex: nutty, with some bitterness, but also earthy flavours from the pulses, laced through with peppery undercurrents from the mustard seeds. It could definitely have benefited from some salt, and perhaps a fried egg on top, but it was still good enough that I finished the entire patty and contemplated cooking a second." Linda Geddes/The Guardian

Obviously she did not have access to quite the same ingredients as the Neanderthals, but she approximated as best she could, and ditto for the methods she used. The recipe is included in the article. And the other thing to note is that it's possibly not quite that different from foods eaten today - such as these falafels. And we all love falafels.

Not only are we sort of eating the same thing, albeit in a rather more refined way but the choice of plants and the pulses, seeds and nuts, etc, that they produced influenced what the first farmers decided to grow:

"After hundreds of thousands of years of hunting and gathering, humans knew nature and wisely chose the species they wanted to domesticate ...

by and large we are still eating the same things we ate when the first farmers coaxed the first crops out of the land ... the same cereals, the same legumes." Professor Avi Gopher - Tel Aviv University/Haaretz

But it didn't stop there because by the time they came to domesticate crops man had learnt, besides what would grow where, what crops were needed to provide a healthy diet:

"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." Professor Avi Gopher - Tel Aviv University/Haaretz

Another small thing I learnt about the Neanderthals in these articles, was that in that Iraqi cave they also found graves and skeletons which looked as if they had been deliberately placed and buried and moreover, with flowers. Now how touching is that?


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