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Neanderthals Cooking Food

Neanderthals may have been the first to boil their food


A palaeontologist has claimed at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Texas that Neanderthals cooked stews using skin bags or birch bark trays, according to a National Geographic report. It was once believed that boiling water to soften food or remove fat from bones may have been one of the advantages that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, but Palaeontologists John Speth questions this perspective.

According to Speth, the evidence for Neanderthals’ cooking abilities comes from archaeological remains of ancient bones, spears, and porridge.  Speth said that animal bones found in Neanderthal settings are 98 percent free of scavenger's gnawing marks, which he says suggests the fat had been cooked off. Furthermore, grains found in the teeth of a Neanderthal buried in Iraq's Shanidar Cave site appear to have been cooked, according to a 2011 Proceedings of the National Academies of Science report.  "It is speculative, but I think it is pretty likely that they knew how to boil," Speth says.

Speth’s theory is that Neanderthals boiled foods in birch bark twisted into trays, a technology that prehistoric people used to boil maple syrup from tree sap. Water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container, even flammable bark or hides.

Sheets of birch bark

Sheets of birch bark, which Neanderthals may have used for cooking. Photo source.

Some experts are not yet convinced of Speth’s theory. Palaeontologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tuscon acknowledges that Neanderthals were handy with wood and fire, but does not believe there is enough evidence to conclude that Neanderthals were cooking: "Whether they went as far as boiling stuff in birch bark containers or in hides is harder to evaluate," Stiner said.

Archaeologists have demonstrated that Neanderthals relied on birch tar as an adhesive for creating spear points as many as 200,000 years ago. Making birch tar requires clever cooking in an oxygen-free container, says palaeontologist Michael Bisson of Canada's McGill University. Bisson explains that Neanderthals probably rolled-up birch bark "cigars" and put them into holes to cook the sticky substance in an oxygen-free environment.

Birch tar

Making birch tar. Photo source.

While further research is needed to determine if Speth’s hypothesis is correct, numerous studies have emerged in recent years that have shown that the skills and abilities of Neanderthals were not inferior to those of Homo sapiens.

Featured image:  An artist’s depiction of Neanderthals cooking and eating. Credit: Mauricio Anton / SPL

By April Holloway

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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