Starchy Plants Cooked 170,000 Years Ago

Starchy plant remains have been found in 170,000 year old cooking fire ashes in South Africa. Find out what this tells us about our human origins.

When school was out during the summer, my brothers and I would spend our time watching daytime television. One of our favourite shows was produced here in Canada and starred celebrity chef Graham Kerr. It was called The Galloping Gourmet.

Kerr was a charming entertainer, and he made a point of challenging himself to prepare elaborate dishes in his tight 30-minute time slot. He was very fond of wine, and he gave the impression that he was getting sloshed during every performance. In truth, the wine was only a prop. He drank moderately in real life, and he came to regret that image.

We would watch the show purely as entertainment. It never occurred to any of us to make an effort to learn to prepare any of the featured recipes. Even though the show was immensely popular, I’ve never heard of anyone who did.  

HUMANS ARE FASCINATED BY FOOD AND FOOD PREPARATION

There are lots of cooking shows on television and social media. Cookbooks are a staple of every publisher. Humans are fascinated by food and food preparation.

That’s not surprising when we consider that humans are the only species that cooks and that scientists think we have been doing it for about 2 million years. We’ve certainly been building our own controlled fires for at least one million years. Richard Wrangham chronicles this in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Contact between Europeans led to a considerable cross pollenation of food cultures. Indigenous people taught Europeans about corn, potatoes and pumpkins, among other starchy crops. Cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat and other grains came to the New World from Europe.

EACH NATIONALITY CULTIVATED THEIR OWN ETHNIC CUISINE

During the enlightenment period, food became a part of one’s status and cultural identity. Serving refined food and learning table manners was a marker of class. Each nationality began to cultivate their own ethnic cuisine.

Last week, a research team from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa announced a new discovery. They have found that early modern humans were cooking starchy plants 170,000 years ago. They published their findings in the AAAS journal Science.

The team made their discovery in the well known Border Cave Heritage Site in South Africa. The Border Caves have been an essential archeological site since 1934. They’re open to the public, and there is a small museum on site. Because the caves are so famous, reservations are a must.

NEW INSIGHTS INTO HUMAN BEHAVIOUR AND FOOD

Scientists have found the grave of a baby buried with a seashell at the Border Caves, along with bone tools, beads, a counting device and poison. The cave dwellers seem to have used the poison for hunting animals. 

This finding of prehistoric cooking is vital for two reasons. First, it’s a lot older than the standard dating for modern humans cooking starchy plants. Second, and probably more intriguingly, it gives us new insights into human behaviour surrounding the use of food in those times.

Another remarkable aspect of their discovery is that the delicate starchy plant remains had survived so long. Professors Lyn Wadley and Christine Sievers had been leading a dig at the site since 2015. At one point, they recognized some charred cylinders as the remains of prehistoric rhizomes.

CHARRED RHIZOME CYLINDERS IN THE BORDER CAVES

Rhizomes are a plant’s rootstocks. They are the underground vertical stems we see in plants that store starch and emit the roots and shoots that form the rest of the plant. Potatoes are an example of a plant where we eat the starchy rhizome.

The rhizome cylinders in the Border Caves were charred and had all come from the same type of plant called the Yellow Star Flower, or Hypoxis Augustifolia. People still enjoy eating their starchy plant rhizomes today.

The Yellow Star Flower is an evergreen plant. It can grow in a range of habitats today, so it was probably easy to find in prehistoric times.  Their rhizomes grow together in clumps, so you can dig up a bunch of them at once. These starchy plants would have been a perfect choice for a reliable food staple for hunter-gatherer communities in early Africa.

RELIABLE FOOD STABLE FOR HUNTER-GATHERERS

Hypoxis rhizomes are very nutritious. They’re rich in carbs, and 100 grams of them will give you about 500 calories of food energy. You can eat them raw, but they’re quite hard.  

Cooking them makes them easy to peel and to digest. People who learned to cook these starchy plants would have had a nutritional advantage over people who ate them raw.

The scientists found a tool at the Border Cave that they concluded the cave dwellers used to dig up the Hypoxis rhizomes. They dated the simple implement to roughly 40,000 years ago.

CARRIED BACK TO THE CAVES WHERE THEY COOKED THEM

The team recovered the rhizomes from fire pits and ash dumps. The Border Cave dwellers would have taken their wooden tools out to the hillside and dug up the starchy plants. Then they carried them back to the caves where they cooked them in the ashes of their fires.

They don’t seem to have cooked them out in the hillsides. This tells us that they brought the food they had gathered back to the group and shared it with others.  

They must have sometimes lost the starchy plant rootstocks in the ashes. That was unlucky for them but lucky for those of us today who want to know more about human origins.

BROUGHT FOOD BACK TO THE GROUP AND SHARED IT

Cooking is one of the activities that make us human. So is sharing our food with our family and our friends. Going outside and harvesting starchy plants with gardening tools, however simple and crude, is something we can all picture ourselves doing and even enjoying. For our own health and the health of our planet, we need to get back to these kinds of activities.

The researchers hope that this new discovery will renew interest in the irreplaceable cultural heritage preserved at South Africa’s Border Caves. They would like to encourage visitors to learn more about the artifacts of human history preserved there.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

University of the Witwatersrand
Cooked starchy rhizomes in Africa 170 thousand years ago
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
We All Need to “Sleep and Dream of Sheep”
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Rock Art Depicts Oldest Story Ever Told

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