‘Surprisingly tasty’: putting Neanderthal cooking to the test

Evidence has been found of complex cooking by Neanderthals. Our writer finds out how their meals might have tasted

Pity the Neanderthal chef. With only rudimentary cooking implements – a hot rock, some scraps of animal skin, perhaps a favoured prodding stick, plus stones for pounding, cutting, scraping and grinding – their hands must have been a scarred mess, and the woodsmoke from the hearth must have played havoc with their eyes. However, according to research published this week, they did at least have access to a smörgåsbord of ingredients.

Gone is the stereotype of Neanderthals tearing into raw tubers or gnawing on a leg of roasted animal meat. Microscopic analysis of ancient food scraps unearthed from a hearth in Shanidar Cave, in Iraq, has provided the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – among Neanderthals.

So, what did a Neanderthal meal taste like, and how easy was it to prepare? On a rainy afternoon in urban Bristol, I decided to find out.

According to Dr Ceren Kabukcu, of the University of Liverpool, who carried out the analysis, a typical dish would probably have contained a pounded pulp of pulses, nuts and grass seeds, bound together with water and flavoured with bitter tannins from the seed coats of pulses such as beans or peas, and the sharp taste of wild mustard.

Ingredients: fava beans, lentils, almonds, pistachio nuts and yellow mustard seeds.
Ingredients: fava beans, lentils, almonds, pistachio nuts and yellow mustard seeds. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Gathering such ingredients must have been time-consuming. “There are lots of species out at Shanidar in the savannah-type vegetation, and I’d guess the Neanderthals would have gathered whatever they came across and cooked with it,” said Prof Chris Hunt, of Liverpool John Moores University, who coordinated the excavation.

While lacking easy access to a savannah, I do have the convenience of several health food shops and a Turkish mini-mart within minutes of my house. Sadly, these didn’t stock terebinth (wild pistachio) or bitter vetch (a legume), but commercial raw pistachios and puy lentils provided acceptable substitutes.

Tucked away at the back of our larder, I found a half-empty packet of fava beans with a use-by data of 2010 – not quite Neanderthal, but ancient enough.

Using a pestle and mortar
Even using a pestle and mortar, grinding together the ingredients takes considerable effort. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Kabukcu and Hunt suggested combining these – or other types of dried beans or peas (not marrowfat) – with an ancient whole grain such as spelt, einkorn wheat berries or barley, in default of grass seed. Neanderthals also used wild almonds and mustard seeds in their cooking, so I plumped for commercially grown equivalents.

Hunt counselled against the addition of salt. He said: “The Neanderthals had no easy access to salt in the region and would have had to cross the Zagros mountains to get to the nearest source. It is thought they got their dietary salt from eating the flesh of animals.”

The beans, lentils and grains all required soaking overnight – but what to soak them in? For authenticity, Hunt suggested using a leather pouch. But who, besides an archaeologist, possesses a leather pouch? I contemplated using a scrap of artificial leather left over from Halloween, and even an old shoe. Eventually, I settled on a wooden bowl, having been assured that Neanderthal wooden bowls might have been a thing.

The pattie cooking on a hot rock
The pattie cooking on a hot rock. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

With my ingredients soaked and softened, my mind turned to pounding. When the researchers attempted a similar feat near their excavation site in Iraq, they used locally sourced (and rather soft) limestone to pound and grind their ingredients. “It meant that the results were really rather gritty,” Hunt said.

Valuing the integrity of my teeth, I opted for a stone pestle and mortar. Even using this, grinding together the ingredients took considerable effort – particularly the wheat grains.

I combined this beige-brown mixture with several tablespoons of water to create a coarse sludge, which I carried outside to my fire pit and shaped into thin patties on top of a large rock surrounded by wood and charcoal embers.

Sheltering under an umbrella while bitterly regretting not having access to a cave, I cooked my patties until their surfaces had turned golden brown and I was convinced the insides were thoroughly heated through. Some beans contain toxins that need to be destroyed through cooking, so anyone considering recreating this recipe should take care.

The result is nutty, with some bitterness, and peppery undercurrents
The result is nutty, with some bitterness, and peppery undercurrents. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

The result was surprisingly tasty and complex: nutty, with some bitterness, but also earthy flavours from the pulses, laced through with peppery undercurrents from the mustard seeds. It could definitely have benefited from some salt, and perhaps a fried egg on top, but it was still good enough that I finished the entire patty and contemplated cooking a second.

Now, I wonder what the Neanderthals drank in place of beer …

Neanderthal patties recipe

Soak a handful of dried fava beans, alongside similar quantities of puy lentils and wheat berries, plus a smattering of brown lentils, overnight. Rinse in clean water and then pound these ingredients – including their skins – into a rough pulp. Add a generous tablespoon each of pounded unsalted almonds and pistachios (both with their skins on), and yellow mustard seeds. Gradually add enough water to bind these ingredients into a paste that can be shaped into thin patties with your hands (think drop scones, or American pancakes).

Cook the patties on any flat surface close to a fire for at least 10 minutes. For a more authentic experience, use a hot flat stone in a fire (but take care, as wet stones can explode). A frying pan is an acceptable alternative. The oils from the nuts should prevent the patties from sticking. Bon appétit, Neanderthals!

• This article was amended on 29 November 2022. Instead of using Neanderthal to describe the patty and the bowl, an earlier version mistakenly used “neolithic” in the caption of the main image and in the text. The neolithic period was after the time of the Neanderthals.

Contributor

Linda Geddes Science correspondent

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