We Are What We Ate

Looks like we have had our nose to the grindstone for at least 30,000 years.
Grinding starchy grains, tubers and rhizomes, possibly into flour, was a widespread practice across Europe 30,000 years ago according to Anna Revedin and colleagues’ findings in PNAS. The grinding stones they discovered at sites in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic contained the remains of starch from various wild plants, including cattail rhizomes, cattail leaves, moonworts, the ternate grapefern, lady’s mantle, burdock, lettuce roots, rye, burr chervil root, parts of edible grasses, edible seeds and more. As well as analysing the stones for traces of wear and residue by microscope, they did a bit of Paleolithic recipe testing. Anna Revedin explains.

‘We collected typha (cattail) rhizomes at the beginning of October, when the roots are starch-rich to survive the winter. We peeled the rhizomes before grinding them, and we found this process was easier if they are still moist. Then we dried them in sun before using two fragments of sandstone of similar size and shape to those at the Bilancino site to produce flour. We found that you first need to use the ‘active tool’ like a pestle to open up the fibres, and then like a grinder to extract the flour which was a fine, white-beige powder with a slightly sweet aroma. We then mixed the flour with water to make dough, which we baked over a fire similar to Bilancino hearth B (Upper Palaeolithic). After cooking it for about 20 minutes on a sandstone pebble that was well heated on embers, we had an edible flat bread which we ate and offered to our colleagues. It was quite good to eat, although without any salt or oil to flavour the dough it wasn’t very tasty.’

Making bread