Quirks & Quarks

Burned roots are the first evidence of humans cooking vegetables and sharing food

170,000 year-old remains from South Africa provide evidence for harvesting and food sharing

170,000 year-old remains from South Africa provide evidence for harvesting and food sharing

The Border Cave archaeological heritage site on the border between South Africa and Eswatini, formerly Swaziland (Ashley Kruger)

The earliest evidence of early modern humans cooking vegetables has been identified in a cave on the border between Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and South Africa.

The cave, known as the Border Cave, is a heritage site due to the many significant archeological discoveries there over the years. It is located high on a cliff side, and was first occupied as early as 250,000 thousand years ago. The people who lived there were early-modern human hunter-gatherers who were similar to us in appearance. 

These charred root plant remains, called rhizomes, were identified as 170,000 year old Hypoxis (Lyn Wadley)

170,000 year old cooked veggies

Christine Sievers, an archeologist from the University of the Witswatersrand, was part of a team that found included the charred remains of cylindrical rhizomes, or larger root-based storage organs similar to ginger. In total, 55 charred complete rhizomes were found, and identified as being from the plant hypoxis, which is commonly called the yellow star flower.

Hypoxis are rich in carbohydrates and similar to other underground root plants like carrots, although they are much smaller. Hypoxis is still eaten today and are similar in taste to yams.

The preservation of this charred vegetable for so long is attributed to the dry climate within the cave. The plants were found in ash dumps within the cave. The hypoxis rhizomes were split at one end, which is consistent with having been heated, or cooked. 

The hypoxis plant, commonly called the Yellow Star Flower, above ground (Lyn Wadley)

Gathering, cooking and sharing

Sievers suggests that finding these charred plants within the cave is significant for several reasons. First, it confirms a controlled use of fire, in this case, for the earliest evidence of cooking plants. This discovery also suggests that the plants were gathered in substantial quantity at an outside location, then brought to the cave for the purpose of cooking.  This might mean they were shared among a group, perhaps including elderly people and children not able to take part in harvesting the plants.

This 'delayed gratification' is a significant indication of early human behaviour. Bones found in the cave indicate that meat was also cooked, so these people were eating something of a balanced diet.

Archaeological excavation at The Border Cave (University of The Witswatersrand)

 

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