When you picture Neolithic hunter-gatherers, you probably think of people eating chunks of meat around an open fire. But the truth is that many people who lived 10,000 years ago ate more vegetables and grains than meat. Researchers discovered this after an extensive chemical analysis of 110 pottery fragments found in the Libyan Sahara desert, a region that was once a humid savanna filled with lakes, herds of animals and lush plants.
The pottery was excavated from two archaeological sites: Uan Afuda Cave and Takarkori Rock Shelter. For thousands of years, between 8200 and 6400 BC, people intermittently inhabited these places. Both sites were occupied shortly after the invention of heat-resistant pottery in Africa 10,000 years ago (pottery was independently invented in Asia 4,000 years earlier). Remains in these places reveal the emergence of an important cultural innovation: the cooking and preparation of vegetables in clay pots.
As the researchers write in a paper for Nature Plants, “54% of the total residues recovered from the barrels are predominantly plant-based, with the remainder being animal fats or mixtures of plant and animal products.” They add that this “high frequency of plant product processing” is unique among prehistoric pottery finds. Some jars were used for grains and fruit, while others had remains of leaves and stems. Most of the plants appeared to be aquatic, collected on the banks of lakes and rivers, along with some grasses of dry land.
The jars appear to have been used for a variety of purposes, from storage and grain handling to cooking. The prehistoric cooks of Uan Afuda Cave and Takarkori may have made bread or grain purees, as well as stews and perhaps even syrups.
Despite these advances, early cooking was a huge chore. Rana Özbal, an archaeologist from Koç University, who was not involved in the study, explained that Neolithic cooks dropped heated stones into pots to heat up their food. Their kitchens were made possible entirely by heat-resistant pottery that could hold cooking utensils. This in turn led to a wider range of food sources, including plants that are impossible to eat raw.
The chefs of the ancient Sahara represent the bleeding of a much broader cultural change. Once they could eat a wide variety of plants, people could settle in one place and start breeding pets. They could support themselves with the bounty of the land, and they could wean babies earlier by giving them soft, cooked food. This may have meant that women could have more babies and the babies they had were more likely to survive.
The sedentary lifestyle that most people enjoy today started in caves like Uan Afuda, thanks to new cooking technologies. Put another way, learning to eat a wide variety of vegetables was humanity’s first step toward modern civilization.
Nature Plants2016. DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2016.194 (About DOIs).
Frame image from The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara. Sapienza University of Rome.