Ancient northern Europeans spiced their venison, seafood and other dishes with tangy mustard seeds. Germany archeologists discovered residues from the garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) plant’s seeds in burned leftovers caked onto ceramic pots.

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The crust of charred, spicy foods ranged from approximately 6,100 to 3,750 years ago. (And my wife thinks I’m bad about cleaning my dishes promptly!) At that earliest date, domesticated animals had not yet reached the areas on the Baltic Sea coast where the ancient mustard meals were discovered. This may mean Europeans developed the use of spices independently and weren’t just copying practices imported from further south along with livestock, wrote the study authors in the journal PLOS ONE.

Peppery-flavored mustard seeds contain little nutrition, which suggests the spices were being used solely for flavoring. Ancient Europeans seem to have been concerned with the culinary qualities of their cuisine, not just its calories and nutrients, which may mean Stone Age people sought to go beyond simple survival to enjoy the finer things in life.

Identifying ancient spices presented a challenge for the archeologists from the University of Kiel. Most plant material disintegrates easily. However, tiny, durable deposits of silica in the plants, known as phytoliths, provide clues as to which plants people ate long ago. Different species of plants create distinctive phytoliths, so when scientists examine them under a microscope, they can identify which plant was the source of the phytolith.

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In the case of the ancient mustard seeds, the residue was embedded in charred remains in cooking pots. That helped preserve the phytoliths, as well as provide the evidence that the seeds were used in cooking. The crusty leftovers also contained residues from marine animals, red deer and starchy plants.

IMAGE: Garlic mustard plant (Sannse, Wikimedia Commons)