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Spicing Up

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Humans used garlic mustard as way back as 6,000 years ago

Humans used garlic mustard as way back as 6,000 years ago

It has so far been believed that prehistoric humans chose their food only for nutrition. The use of condiments and flavourings in the human diet was thought to have been absent among hunter-gatherers; it was an innovation of the agricultural era. However, a new study shows that hunter-gatherers in Europe were using spices in their food as way back as 6,000 years ago.

According to research findings published in the journal Plos One, a group of researchers from the UK, Denmark, Germany and Spain found evidence of garlic mustard in the residues left on ancient pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany. The pottery shards date between 5,800 and 6,150 years back and were collected from three camp sites in that region.

Apart from the spice, the pottery shards also contained remnants of more substantial foods like fish and animal fat—probably of deer. Since garlic mustard has no nutritional value, the researchers believe that the spice was added for flavour rather than nourishment. One of the researchers, Hayley Saul, told Live Science, “The majority of the samples showed marine foods, so things like fish and shellfish... This was the cusp of agriculture, so we also saw things like roe deer and wild cow.”

Spice residue was found on the inside of the pottery fragments and not outside, thereby showing that it was used for cooking. According to the study, prehistoric humans in this region used to crush the mustard garlic seeds to get its flavour. If they did not have a practice of crushing them, the researchers claim, intact seeds in residues would have been found. They however add that while their cuisine was flavoursome, it was not varied. No evidence of spices apart from garlic mustard was found.

The researchers write in the journal: ‘Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste... It is now established that the habit of enhancing and altering the flavour of calorie rich staples was part of European cuisine as far back as the 7th millennia.’