In general Stone Age people consumed more protein and ate less carbohydrate than most humans do today, with fat intake probably about the same level; although this was a balanced blend of fatty acids (Omega-3:Omega-6) and relatively high levels of MUFA and PUFA, rather than today's focus on Omega-6, consequently Stone Age people were mainly free of the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Starch came from sources including grain, nuts and sea beet (the ancestor of beetroot and sugar beet) and evidence from Grotte des Pigeons cave in northern Morocco, indicates that extensive snacking on acorns and pine nuts may have led to some tooth decay.
Scientists from the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (HEP) in Tübingen have investigated the diet of Neanderthals from their bones recovered in two excavation sites in Belgium. By studying the isotope composition in the collagen, it was shown that the Neanderthals' diet consisted primarily of large plant eaters such at mammoths and rhinoceroses, however the result also concluded that around 20% of their diet was plant matter.
Later hunter-gatherers lived in nomadic tribes that hunted animals like bison, mammoth, wild boar, horse and red and roe deer, grey seals. Wild animal species (such as wild boar and horse) were leaner compared to their modern-day domesticated equivalents, so much of the fat the Stone Age people ate came from marine mammals, fatty fish and nuts.
Snails where consumed at least 150,000 years ago, with evidence from the Haua Fteah cave (Libya) that indicates early humans used stone ‘drills’ or thorns to extract the molluscs from their shells. In a high status grave site of a 12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman found in a cave in Northern Israel, was the remains of roasted tortoise meat, thought to be eaten by the tribe as part of a burial ceremony.
Analysis pottery and middens found at Durrington Walls (a late Neolithic settlement site thought to be the residence for the builders of nearby Stonehenge 25 BC) reveal their eating habits with organised feasts of roasted of pigs and cattle. Livestock (often under-weight) came from various locations and were slaughtered and butchered on site. The main methods of cooking meat are believed to be boiling and roasting in pots probably around indoor hearths and outdoor pits. Ceremonial areas showed that dairy produce (milk, yoghurt and cheese) were only consumed by a select individuals and possibly used in public ceremonies. There was little evidence of plant-based food preparation during feasts or ceremonies.
Alaskan archaeologists have found the earliest known evidence that Paleoindians cooked and ate chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) at least 11,500 years ago. The fish remains were found in an ancient cooking hearth in a residential structure at the Upward Sun River site near the Tanana River located east of Fairbanks. DNA and stable isotope analysis from vertebrae bones identified them as sea-run chum salmon.
Researchers analysed carbon isotope ratios in the bones of 164 Neolithic humans and compared the findings with 19 fragments of Mesolithic skeletons, to compare diets. Their conclusion was that around 5,000 years ago Britain's changed from a diet of high protein fish and shellfish and adopted a more European taste for meat and carbohydrate-rich cereals.
Cereals, Pulses and Plants
Perhaps surprisingly, it is thoughts that the world’s oldest flour was made from oat some 32,000 years ago, based on analysis of a Paleolithic stone tool found in 1989 from a cave in southeastern Italy called Grotta Paglicci. The elongated cobble of sandstone interpreted as a peste-grinder (which measures around 13cm long), is broken at one end and rounded at the other, with longitudinal fissures on its surface. It is assumed by researchers that the rounded end was used to crush seeds, while the stone’s flat surface allowed to grind the broken seeds into flour. Analysis of food materials recovered from the stone included acorns and relatives of millet and wild Avena (oat) species.
Farming during the Neolithic in Northern Europe was mostly einkorn (Triticum monococcum) and emmer (Triticum dicoccum) cereals, with wheat and naked barley (Hordeum vulgare/sativum) cultivated in Southwest Europe. People cleared large areas of wooded landed to grow their crops, which also included lentils, chickpeas, Bitter Vetch, peas, poopy and flax.
Scientists have discovered evidence that people flavored meat and fish with garlic mustard seeds (Alliaria petiolata) around 6,000 years ago, just as farming practices were starting. Garlic mustard is a season biennial herb with stalked, triangular to heart-shaped, coarsely toothed leaves that give off a smell of garlic when crushed. Other spices, like coriander, turmeric and capers, have been found in cooking vessels across Europe from about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, when people in Europe were already adopting agricultural practices.
Meadowlands and forest edges were filled with many edible wild plants, such as lilies and onions. The bulbs of these plants are very nutritious, but their energy is locked up in a dense, indigestible carbohydrate called inulin. The only way to make the bulbs digestible is to roast them for two days or longer.
Beer is considered by some as the most important of human inventions, as it is likely to be one of the key reasons that farming was started, in order to grow hops for brewing. Beer would have been part of the daily diet for all members of the family and would have been more of a gruel, rather than frothy golden brown liquid.
Archeological evidence from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology & Anthropology shows that the world’s earliest known alcoholic drink came from China’s Yellow River Valley and brewed around 9,000 years ago, where pottery jars were shown to contain a mixed drink of rice, honey and grape/hawthorn tree fruit. The oldest known barley beer comes from Iran’s Zagros Mountains and dates to 3,400 BC.
Evidence suggests that although wine making might have originated during the Paleolithic, when early humans drank the juice of naturally fermented wild grapes during Autumn when the grapes ripe, the oldest known grape wine comes from a Neolithic settlement in Iran’s Zagros mountains, Hajji Firuz Tepe, dated to around 5,400 BC.
It is generally thought that Homo Habilis was the first of our ancestors to eat meat and before then, it is assumed meat was eaten raw. Analysis of 13 teeth found in 2000 at Qesem Cave (20 km east of Tel Aviv) reveals that the Hominids who inhabited the cave from around 400,000 to 200,000 years ago, put the food in their mouth, then pulled at it with one hand and cut it with a flint tool in the other hand. Many small scratches seen on the teeth are believed to be marks accidentally left by flint blades. The teeth also showed extensive wear, suggesting theirs was a very abrasive diet that required a lot of chewing.
When early man learned to control fire, cooking on open fires was eventually developed - probably by accident. Evidence for when cooking meat started has not yet been found, however archaeologists working in places such as Swartkrans (South Africa) are searching for evidence to show that this was possibly one million years ago. They are hoping to find animal bone with butchery marks that has also been burnt, indicating that cooking of meat took place by Homo Erectus (who had a 20% larger brain and smaller teeth with sharp points and thinner enamel).
Cooking food may have had a very significant impact on prehistoric man and some scientists even believe that cooking actually helped man develop the large brain that we have today. Cooking food significant increases the amount of energy that can be absorbed into the body and also reduces the diseases in raw meat. This means that food can be processed much more efficiently in the gut and so allowed extra energy to be used to develop the brain.
The open fires were probably made in shallow pits to conserve the heat and protect from the wind. Cooking methods probably used easy to obtain items such as plant leaves, grass and stones. It is believed that cooking on hot rocks first became a substitute for cooking on open fires about 9,000 to 10,500 years ago. This was partly for the exploitation of new food resources and also that cooking over a hot open fire, meant regular tending the fire pit. By adding large rocks to the fire however, meant they would gradually warm up and then hold heat for 48 hours or longer, conserving both fuel and human energy.
Evidence of Stone Age food and ingredients often comes from "middens" - the term for a pit or dump of domestic waste. Microscopic examination of the middens provides valuable evidence of what people ate. Middens may be single-use pit created by nomadic groups or long-term dumps used by sedentary communities that accumulate waste over many generations. Damp, anaerobic conditions can preserve organic remains and middens may contain animal/fish bone, shells, plant material, human excrement, pot sherds, lithics and other materials associated with human occupation. Well-known Stone Age midden site in Britain include:
Obviously as no Prehistoric Recipe Book exists, ingredients and cooking methods are based on research, experimentation and some guesswork. A research team, commissioned by UKTV Food in 2007 and lead by Dr Ruth Fairchild from the Food Science Department of the University of Wales Institute (Cardiff), spoke to food experts and experimental archaeologists, such as Jacqui Wood (below), to compile a list of Britain's oldest recipes.
(© Chris Saville - with kind permission)
NOTE: RECIPES ARE FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY ~ NOT INTENDED AS CULINARY GUIDANCE
Oat Flat Bread
Traces of starchy grains found on the 32,000 year old stone tool in an Italian cave called Grotta Paglicci, suggests the oats were mashed them into a flour-like consistency. Because the gains were gelatinised and swollen, researchers believe they may have been heated before grinding and stirred into water and cooked (gelatinisation occurs when flour or oats are mixed with liquid and warmed, causing the starch to explode and absorb the moisture, turning it into a jelly).
Mesolithic people roasted and ate many nuts, including acorn, because they are very nutritious and contain carbohydrate and some protein. However in their natural state acorns contain a lot of bitter tasting tannins - a bitter tasing astringent, which must be removed during processing.
Sweet Hazelnut Bread
Hazelnuts would have been an abundant during the Mesolithic, as the bushes spread rapidly throughout Europe, possibly during meal preparation of nomadic people. They are a highly nutritious source of food that could easily be gathered in the autumn and stored for consumption through lean winter months.
Cooking Time: 5 mins each side
From about 6,000BC. Start by picking the nettles, carefully, using only the small, young ones, as they grow more bitter with age. Wash the nettles one by one, to remove soil and insects (note: Acetylcholine and histamine are the primary nettle toxins; the latter causes dermal vesiculation. Formic acid was formerly thought to cause the persistent stinging action but it is now only associated with the initial pain at contact).
For more information on nettles visit >> Click here
Wild Boar, Scallop & Mushroom (Kebabs)
This Paleolithic recipe reflects hunted and gathered food, cooked in a very simple way. Cooking on sticks was a method of cooking used long before cooking pots had been developed. The food would have been roasted close to, but not in, the fire. A stick grid could be made to lay food on or the food could simply be threaded onto sticks like modern-day kebabs
For more information about wild boars in the UK>> click here
Based on a recipe in the 1986 novel "The Clan of the Cave Bear" (pages 81 and 82)
"Ayla was slicing pieces of yam to put into a skin pot that was boiling over a cooking fire" - Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel (page 140)
To read about Eric Pettifor's experiments with cooking in a leather pot >> click here
Anglesey "Witches" Stew
The Neolithic tomb at Barclodiad Y Gawres (Welsh for 'apronful of the giantess') on Anglesey's southwestern coastline dates from around 2,500 - 3,000 BC and is believed to be a public grave for the local farming community. During the excavation of two male burials in one chamber, evidence of a hearth was discovered in a central area. Over the fire the remains of a strange "witches" stew was identified - whether this stew was actually eaten or used as part of a ritual ceremony is unknown.
(image provenance / © unknown)
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