putting Neanderthal cooking to the test

Shame on the Neanderthal chef. With only rudimentary cooking implements—a red-hot rock, a few shreds of animal hide, perhaps a favorite goad stick, plus stones for pounding, cutting, scraping, and grinding—their hands must have been a scarred mess, and the smoke of firewood had to be made havoc with their own eyes. However, according to research published this week, they at least had access to aa smörgåsbord of ingredients.

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

So, what did a Neanderthal meal taste like, and how easy was it to prepare? On a rainy afternoon in the city of 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 likely have contained a pounded pulp of pulses, nuts and grass seeds, bound together with water and flavored with bitter tannins from the pulse seed husks such as beans or peas and the pungent taste of wild mustard.

Gathering those ingredients must have taken a long time. “There are a lot of species at Shanidar in savanna-type vegetation, and I imagine Neanderthals would have collected whatever they came across and cooked with it,” said Professor Chris Hunt, of Liverpool John Moores University, who coordinated the excavation.

While I don’t have easy access to a savannah, I have the convenience of several health food stores and a Turkish mini-market within minutes of my home. Sadly, these did not contain 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 pantry, I found a half-empty packet of fava beans with an expiration date of 2010 — not quite Neolithic, but old enough.

Kabukcu and Hunt suggested combining these — or other types of dried beans or peas (not marrow) — with an ancient whole grain such as spelt, spelled wheat berry, or barley, failing grass seed. Neanderthals also used wild almonds and mustard seeds in their cooking, so I opted for commercially grown equivalents.

Hunt advised against adding salt. He said: ‘Neanderthals did not have 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 that they obtained their dietary salt by 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 case. But who, besides an archaeologist, owns a leather bag? I thought about using a piece of artificial leather left over from Halloween and even an old shoe. In the end, I settled on a wooden bowl, having been assured that Neolithic wooden bowls might be a thing.

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 quite soft) limestone to pound and grind their ingredients. “It meant the results were really pretty gritty,” Hunt said.

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

I combined this beige-brown concoction with several tablespoons of water to create a coarse mud, which I took out 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 meatballs until their surfaces were golden brown and I was convinced the inside was thoroughly heated through. Some beans contain toxins that need to be destroyed during cooking, so anyone considering recreating this recipe should be careful.

The result was surprisingly tasty and complex: nutty, with a certain bitterness, but also earthy flavors of the legumes, intertwined with peppery undercurrents of the mustard seeds. He could definitely have benefited from a little salt and maybe a fried egg on top, but it was still good enough to finish the whole patty and think about cooking a second one.

Now, I wonder what Neanderthals drank instead of beer…

Neanderthal meatballs recipe

Soak a handful of dried broad beans, along with similar amounts of puy lentils and wheat berries, plus a smattering of brown lentils, overnight. Rinse in clean water and then mash these ingredients, including their peel, into a rough pulp. Add a generous tablespoon each of unsalted almonds and pistachios (both in their skins) 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 American scones or pancakes).

Cook the meatballs on any flat surface near the fire for at least 10 minutes. For a more authentic experience, use a hot, flat stone in a fire (but be careful, as wet stones can explode). A skillet is an acceptable alternative. The oils in the nuts should keep the patties from sticking together. Bon appetit, Neanderthals!

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