Spicy Food and the Development of European Culture

Justin Chung shared an interesting article with new evidence about the use of spices amongst ancient societies. The research calls into question two scientific assumptions. First, the development of European diet. Second, the diffusion of cultural practices between prehistoric groups.

This spicy tale begins with the archaeology team lead by Hayley Saul. The researchers set out to study the use of spices amongst early Neolithic cultures. These are hunter-gatherer groups that paved the way for simple farming communities at the end of the New Stone Age. The researchers studied residues on pottery found in the western Baltic region dating back to 6,100 and 5,750 cal BP (stands for calibrated years before the present).

Spice Science

Identifying spice use in prehistoric periods has been difficult because technology only allowed the analysis of starchy residues from cooking pots, tools and dental calculus (hardened plaque on teeth). This technique was not useful for studying leaf and seed based spices, which are more fragile.

For this study, the researchers were able to use better technology to analyse phytolith – tiny particles within plants which are preserved as fossils. They studied these at the microscopic level. This allowed the researchers to get more information about the types of spices being used by prehistoric groups.

Cooking with Evidence

The team found evidence of spices with low nutritional value being used in the same pots that were used to cook meat and fish. The evidence suggests these spices were likely used to alter the flavour of European cuisine in the 7th millennia. Sau’s team notes that until this discovery, the general scientific convention stated that these early cultures only used spices for energy rather than for taste.

It’s interesting that the evidence cannot currently identify whether one of these spices, garlic mustard, was sourced from the Near East and introduced into Northern Europe cuisine via Neolithic cultures, where ancient farming practices began, or if this practice was developed locally and independent of Neolithic influence.


The discovery has broader significance. It’s not just about the development of culinary traditions, which is still interesting. In popular culture, prehistoric people are painted as “simple,” but this evidence suggests their cultural practices have more in common with modern humans than we might give them credit. The findings also raise questions about how prehistoric cultures may have exchanged information.

Possible evidence of intercultural exchanges are always exciting as they call into question the history of human migration and cultural evolution. The findings of this study raise the possibility of cultural exchange between different groups of humans, including cooking technologies and other knowledge.


The study: http://goo.gl/q3rEo8
Phytoliths: http://goo.gl/tyIfQC
Overview on Neolithic period: http://goo.gl/0OwcrS

First published on Science on Google+