Oldest cooked meal eaten by Neanderthals discovered in northern Iraq

An artist’s impression of a Neanderthal father and his daughter (Tom Bjorklund/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
An artist’s impression of a Neanderthal father and his daughter (Tom Bjorklund/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

The Shanidar Cave site, a Neanderthal settlement in northern Iraq, has yielded the earliest food remains yet discovered.

Some of the burned food remnants turned out to be pancake and flatbread with a “nutty” taste, resulting in convincing claims that Neanderthals had a rich food culture and did not survive on raw animal or plant berries.

The remains were discovered in one of the numerous ancient hearths in the caves and are estimated to be about 70,000 years old.

One of the four fragments of the food remains “strongly resembles experimental preparations and archaeobotanical examples of charred bread-like foods or finely ground cereal meals”, according to the research, published in Cambridge University’s Antiquity journal.

Chris Hunt, a professor of cultural paleoecology at Liverpool John Moores University, who coordinated the excavation, said: “Our findings are the first real indication of complex cooking – and thus of food culture – among Neanderthals.”

While recreating one of the recipes using seeds gathered from near the caves Hunt and his colleagues realised: “It made a sort of pancake-cum-flatbread which was really very palatable – a sort of nutty taste,” Hunt said.

According to the researchers, in addition to eating meat, Neanderthals also regularly consumed plants. Pulses and wild mustard were frequently paired with nuts and grasses.

This research also showed that unlike modern chefs Neanderthals did not hull their seeds to remove the outer coat, a process used to eliminate bitter-tasting compounds, meaning that Neanderthals wanted to reduce but not eliminate the pulses’ natural flavours.

This analysis was made after using a high-tech scanning electron microscope on the charred meals.

Neanderthals, who lived until 40,000 years ago, are humans’ closest evolutionary relatives and were mainly present in Eurasia. The cause of their extinction remains unknown but demographic factors such as small population size, inbreeding and random fluctuations are considered probable reasons.