The World’s First Leftovers

28 May

Older Than Grandma's StewIt’s tempting to speculate, that the world’s first soups looked and tasted something like this Japanese stew.

Flakes of charred material scraped from shards of ancient pots are the earliest direct evidence of pottery use for cooking, a new study suggests. Possibly the biggest surprise, scientists say, is that these prehistoric chefs weren’t part of an early agricultural community, and they weren’t cooking grain: They were hunter-gatherers who lived in Japan during the waning phases of the last ice age, and they were apparently boiling up a seafood stew.

Pottery was invented somewhere in eastern Asia between 12,000 and 20,000 years ago, but exactly where and when—and particularly why—isn’t clear. Indeed, virtually nothing is known about how the first pots were used, says Oliver Craig, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of York in the United Kingdom. Regardless of why such vessels were invented, they undoubtedly offered new and attractive ways to process and consume food, he notes. Layers of blackened material on the inner surfaces of some pot shards, many of them palm-sized or smaller, hinted that the vessels had been used for cooking, but scientists hadn’t performed detailed studies to confirm the notion.


The shapes of the pot fragments suggest that most of the vessels had volumes between 1 and 4 liters, he says. It’s possible that the Japanese hunter-gatherers were cooking fish, shellfish, or even marine mammals caught along the coast. However, considering that the sites were some distance inland, it’s also possible that the itinerants were catching and cooking migratory fish such as salmon, which spend much of their lives in the sea and then swim upstream to spawn.

The new findings are starting to broaden the view of late ice age hunters, once thought of as chiefly chasing big game such as mammoths, says Simon Kaner, an archaeologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K. “This suggests they were exploiting a range of resources,” he notes, possibly including some that were available only during certain seasons.

There’s also this Quirks & Quarks episode, “Earliest Evidence of Cooking Pots“.


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