Our early ancestors developed a taste for spicy food at the time they were beginning to transition to agriculture.

The researchers discovered traces of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), along with animal and fish residues, on the charred remains of pottery dating back nearly 7,000 years. The silicate remains were discovered through microfossil analysis of carboniszed food deposits from pots found at sites in Denmark and Germany. The pottery dated from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture.

Previously scientists have analyzed starches which survive well in carbonized and non-carbonized residues to test for the use of spices in prehistoric cooking. But the new paper suggests that the recovery of phytoliths – silicate deposits from plants -- offers the additional possibility to identify leafy or woody seed material used as spices, not detectable using starch analysis.

Phytoliths charred by cooking are more resilient to destruction.

Early contexts from which spices have been recovered, with photomicrographs of globular sinuate phytoliths recovered from the pottery styles illustrated. Showing, A) A map of Europe showing an inset of the study area and sites from which the pot residues were acquired;, including also the Near East and northern Africa indicating early contexts where spices have been recovered: a) Menneville, France (Papaver somniferum L.), b) Eberdingen, Germany (Papaver somniferum L.), c) Seeberg, Switzerland (Papaver somniferum L.), d) Niederwil, Switzerland (Papaver somniferum L.), e) Swiss Lake Villages, Switzerland (Anethum graveolens L.), f) Cueva de los Murcielags, Spain (Papaver somniferum L.), g) Hacilar, Turkey (Capparis spinosa L.), h) Tell Abu Hureya, Syria (Caparis spinosa L.), i) Tell ed-Der, Syria (Coriandrum sativum L. and Cuminum cyminum L.), j) Khafaji, Iraq (Cruciferae family), k) Tell Aswad, Syria (Capparis spinosa L.), l) Nahal Hemar Cave, Israel (Coriandrum sativum L.), m) Tutankhamun's tomb, Egypt (Coriandrum sativum L.), n) Tomb of Kha, Egypt (Cuminum cyminum L.), o) Tomb of Amenophis II, Egypt (Anethum graveolens L.), p) Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus (Capparis spinosa L.), q) Heilbronn, Germany (Papaver somniferum L.), r) Zeslawice, Poland (Papaver somniferum L.) [compiled using 8–17]. B) Hunter-gatherer pointed-based vessel (on the left) and Early Neolithic flat-based vessel (on the right). C) Scanning Electron Microscope image of a globular sinuate phytolith embedded in a food residue, D) optical light microscope image of modern Alliaria petiolata globular sinuate phytoliths, and E) optical light microscope image of archaeological globular sinuate phytolith examples. Credit and link:

Lead researcher Dr Hayley Saul, of the BioArCH research centre at at the University of York, said, "The traditional view is that early Neolithic and pre-Neolithic uses of plants, and the reasons for their cultivation, were primarily driven by energy requirements rather than flavor. As garlic mustard has a strong flavor but little nutritional value, and the phytoliths are found in pots with terrestrial and marine animal residues, our findings are the first direct evidence for the spicing of food in European prehistoric cuisine. 

"Our evidence suggests a much greater antiquity to the spicing of foods in this region than is evident from the macrofossil record, and challenges the view that plants were exploited by hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists solely for energy requirements, rather than taste."

Citation: Hayley Saul, Marco Madella, Anders Fischer, Aikaterini Glykou, Sönke Hartz, Oliver E. Craig, Phytoliths in Pottery Reveal the Use of Spice in European Prehistoric Cuisine. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70583. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070583