This story is over 5 years old.

Ancient Europeans Spiced Up the Hunter-Gatherer Life with Garlic Mustard

Ancient people in Germany and Denmark liked flavoring their starch and meat-heavy meals with garlic mustard seeds.
Photo partially via Wikimedia Commons

Neolithic humans did all sorts of non-cavemen-like things, like domesticating animals, farming, crafting stone tools, pottery, clay figurines and bone flutes… and even spicing their food. So yes, there was probably a Gordan Ramsay-type complaining about the lack of seasoning in his dish in 7000 BC too, millennia before Vasco de Gama and Columbus set sail for superior spice.

New research coming from the archeology team at the University of York, published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, reveals ancient people in Germany and Denmark liked flavoring their starch and meat-heavy meals with garlic mustard seeds.

By analyzing the black-charred remains in cooking pots, scientists were able to identify phytolith residue, which is basically microscopic plant silica bodies that bear considerable resemblance to modern garlic mustard seeds. One analyzed cooking pot in Denmark with this prehistoric garlic mustard seed spice actually predates domesticated animals.

The report was unable to determine the origin of this spice, as in, did these prehistoric Northern Europeans come up with the idea themselves or learn it from traders from Asian or the Baltic, who also liked spicing their foods? The white-flowered plant is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, so it’s not far-fetched to imagine a curious Danish neolithic woman throwing the spice into her dish on a whim.

"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,” said University of York archeologist Hayley Saul. “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."

Prehistoric cookbook, anyone?