Food preparation is what sets me apart from Gordon Ramsey. Well, that and an obsession with lamb sauce. But could it also be the key difference between us and Neanderthals1?

When we arrived in Europe they dominated the continent. But whilst we flourished, they went extinct; despite the fact that our culture was very similar to theirs. So why did we thrive? A new theory suggests it was our skill at food preparation that gave us the advantage1.

And I’m not just talking about a flavour advantage. Being better at preparing food, particularly plants, would help us squeeze more calories out of the environment1.

So were chefs the secret to our success?

Food preparation in the stone age

There were a lot of similarities between the diet of humans and Neanderthals. We both gathered similar plants and hunted similar animals; adapting both to the local environment. All of which we routinely cooked to release as many calories as possible1.

However, as humans begin to spread throughout Europe and the ice age sets in, our chefs take it up a notch. In particular, we start finding more grindstones, with humans making more in their first 10,000 years than Neanderthals made in the prior 100,0001.

A stone age grinder from Italy, with microwear damage associated with grinding2.

Innovations like this would allow those early Europeans to process bones, roots, seeds, and nuts into something more digestible. For instance, microscopic traces on these tools indicate they made emmer flour; which has many calories as lovely nugs from Mcdonalds (and is just a whole lot nicer than munching on raw grains). Stone age bread anyone2?

There are other indicators of humans increasing the intensity of food preparation, such as pressing plants to extract oil. Or roasting roots. However, much of this is organic evidence and so doesn’t survive well in the archaeological record. Thus, those grindstones remain the clearest examples of our chefs amping it up1.

Plants to the rescue

The more observant of you might have noticed a pattern in this ramping up of food preparation. Most of it is focused around plants.

This certainly took me by surprise. After all, the stone age stereotype is of bearded manly men going out and chucking spears at mammoths. It’s always fun being reminded that this stereotype is, well, just a stereotype!

Plants, it seems, were very important to ancient humans. And learning how to better process them might have been the secret to our success.

References

  1. Power, R.C. and Williams, F.L.E., 2018. Evidence of Increasing Intensity of Food Processing During the Upper Paleolithic of Western Eurasia. Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology, pp.1-21.
  2. Revedin, A., Aranguren, B., Becattini, R., Longo, L., Marconi, E., Lippi, M.M., Skakun, N., Sinitsyn, A., Spiridonova, E. and Svoboda, J., 2010. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(44), pp.18815-18819.

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