Scientists believe they have made a fascinating discovery which reveals some hidden detail about the diet of Neanderthals around 70,000 years ago. They have unearthed remains of what is believed to be the world’s oldest flatbread made by Neanderthals in the foothills of Iraq. The charred remnants were recovered from the Shanidar Cave site – a Neanderthal dwelling around 500 miles north of Baghdad. The archaeologists said the findings, published in the journal Antiquity, show for the first time that bread was part of the diet among these hominid species.
Chris Hunt, a professor of cultural paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University, who is one of the study authors, said: “The old stereotype is that Neanderthals were less intelligent than modern humans and that they had a largely meat-based diet.
“Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – amongst Neanderthals.” The food remains were found in one of the many hearths in the Shanidar Caves.
Samples show evidence of nuts, pulses and seeds, indicating Neanderthals were “choosing to flavour their food”, according to the researchers.
Prof Hunt told the PA news agency: “These are certainly the oldest known flatbread – there is no sign of the bubbles caused by yeast, so it was unleavened.
“It seems the Neanderthals smashed or ground then soaked a mix of wild grains and grasses, wild pulses – including wild lentils, wild pistachios and, at times, wild grass seeds and grass pea fragments, then cooked the resulting mix on hot stones.”
He said the Neanderthals did not remove the seed coats from the grass peas – a task that is easy to do. According to Prof Hunt, this suggests Neanderthal cooks were thinking of flavours while preparing food.
“This is undoubtedly the first evidence of Neanderthals eating bread. We have known they ate wild pulses and wild grains and nuts because these are found as charred remains occasionally in Neanderthal fireplaces.
“We have not had evidence of Neanderthals flavouring their food before – although, because they roasted meat on their fires, they must have realised that this improved the flavour,” he told PA.
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The researchers used a device, known as the scanning electron microscope, to analyse the charred food remains on the micrometre level. Close-up images revealed clues as to how the food was prepared.
Based on their findings, the team was able to paint a picture of how Neanderthals would have cooked pulses, which naturally have a bitter taste because of certain compounds present in the seed coats, like tannins and alkaloids.
Dr Ceren Kabukcu, of the University of Liverpool, who is lead author on this study, said: “Their preparation through soaking and leaching followed by pounding or rough grinding would remove much of the bitter taste.”
According to Prof Hunt, their work also provides a glimpse into the culinary and nomadic lives of the Neanderthals living in the Shanidar Caves.
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He said: “Cooking was definitely in the cave, on these hearths.mThey will also have cooked on similar hearths when camping outside the cave.
“It looks as if they travelled around in extended family groups of 10-15, following the herds of grazing animals up from the central Iraqi plains where they spent the winter, into the Zagros round Shanidar in the spring, then higher into the mountains in summer before returning to the plains via Shanidar in the autumn.
“Caves were convenient pit-stops on these journeys.”