Mmmm, sautéed Saharan grass.
By Nathan Collins
The invention of sautéed vegetables was quite a milestone in the history of cuisine, yet the origins of pots as a means for cooking vegetables remains oddly shrouded in mystery. Scientists believe our ancestors cooked meat and fish soup in pots 15,000 years ago (perhaps even earlier). But when did someone first think, “Hey, we should really try cooking that grass in a pot”?
Now, we have an answer: around 10,000 years ago, in what’s today the Sahara desert, according to a new study.
“The processing of foodstuffs was a major innovation, with the cooking of plants a crucial step as this would have increased the availability of starch as an energy source,” Julie Dunne and hercolleagues write today in Nature Plants. Puzzlingly, however, there’s been little evidence that our ancestors used pots to cook grains and vegetables, despite evidence that they both ate those foods and possessed pots to cook them in.
The search for such evidence took Dunne and her team to North Africa, one of several spots where pottery was independently invented—in this case, around 12,000 years ago, when the Sahara was much wetter than it is today and could support a wide range of plant and animal life.
The researchers focused on 110 bits of pottery, some pieces upwards of 10,000 years old, found at two archaeological sites in Libya’s Tadrart Acacus mountains. In particular, the team wanted to catalogue residues of plant and animal lipids—fats, oils, and a variety of other chemical compounds—that humans left behind on their pots. Plant lipids dominated on 56 pieces of pottery, and a detailed analysis suggested they’d been used to cook grasses, sedges, and aquatic plants typical of that time and place. A few pieces showed signs of animal lipids or a mix of animal and plant lipids.
Those results are striking, in part because they suggest that, when it comes to cooking, plants predated agriculture by something like 5,000 years.
“[A]doption of these new plant-processing techniques, using thermally resistant ceramic cooking vessels, would also have had far-reaching implications for improvements in human nutrition, health and energy gain,” Dunne and her team write. “Critically, significant evolutionary advantages would have accrued through the provision of cooked foods, soft enough to be palatable for infants, potentially leading to earlier weaning and shorter interbirth intervals, thereby enhancing the fertility of women in early pastoral communities.”