People Have Been Overcooking Veggies for 10,000 Years, Says Archeology

published Jan 4, 2017
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

Vegetables need cooking, right? Your massaged kale salad tastes better with cubes of roasted sweet potato, and those delicious cooked collard greens are probably easier on your stomach than in their raw form. While we can sometimes blame our stove or faulty oven for overcooking said recipes, we can actually trace back our problems to our distant (very distant) ancestors.

Scientists and archeologists have evidence that ancient humans began cooking nearly a million years ago, but there was very little evidence of when we began to cook vegetables — until now.

Led by the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, scientists from institutions around the world found the earliest evidence of humans cooking plants in unglazed pottery from two sites in the Libyan Sahara. The vessels date back to about 10,000 years, or 8200 to 6400 BC.

The researchers analyzed the ancient pottery and found lipid residues preserved in the pots, which means that they were used for cooking plants.

Upon further investigation of the preserved plant oil and wax compounds, the team was also able to identify the specific types of plants that were processed: grains, aquatic plants, and the leafy components of terrestrial plants.

(Image credit: Megan Gordon)

Examples of plants and grains found at the site, according to Seeker, are “parts of fig trees, cattails, cypress, burr or carrot seed grass, cassia, and desert date … millet, foxtail grass, and barnyard grass and its fruits.”

“Until now, the importance of plants in prehistoric diets has been under-recognized but this work clearly demonstrates the importance of plants as a reliable dietary resource,” said Julie Dunne, lead author of the paper, published in the scientific journal Nature Plant.

“These findings also emphasize the sophistication of these early hunter-gatherers in their utilization of a broad range of plant types, and the ability to boil them for long periods of time in newly invented ceramic vessels would have significantly increased the range of plants prehistoric people could eat.”

Got that? People invented pottery, ergo they could now boil food — and what came first but a big mess of greens. Your great-great-greats were boiling greens way before you were around to turn your nose up at overcooked spinach.

In all seriousness, this is really fascinating news. Much of what we knew about ancient cooking had to do with fires and pits, the crude equipment for roasting meat. But this shows how the creation of cooking vessels significantly expanded food preparation techniques as well as the food we eat — from greens to grains and beyond.