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This story was originally published in our May/June 2023 issue as The Archeology of Taste. Press here subscribe to read more stories like this.

When it comes to ancient foods, archaeologists can easily piece together basic ingredients based on butchered bones and plant remains found at cooking sites. But every cook—and diner—knows that ingredients don’t make meals delightful or distinctive. The aroma imparted through spices, herbs and culinary crafts defines a dish. Some flavors have come to distinguish the cuisines of different cultures, such as umami in Japan or Herbs of Provence in southern France. In the 1970s, cookbook author Elizabeth Rosin called this phenomenon the Taste Principle.

“Chefs talk about it all the time, but archaeologists don’t,” says Christine Hastorf, an archaeologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who urges her colleagues to think more about taste. Communities “inherit not only dishes and not only dishes, but they inherit tastes.”

It is assumed that past cultures also maintained the principle of taste. However, uncovering these long-gone scents is difficult. Spices and preparation methods rarely survive the way bones and plants do. But thanks to scientists like Hastorf, archeology began to tap into ancient tastes. This new avenue of exploration reveals culinary fads and cultural connections that would otherwise be forgotten—and allows people today to experience the past.

(Credit: Kashtykinata/Shutterstock)

Ancient eating habits

About a decade ago, Hastorf planned a Bronze Age holiday for archaeologists digging in the Italian countryside. As cow bones and grains were found during excavations, her menu included beef and oatmeal. But Hastorf also sought ingredients from a villager who was familiar with the plants, which had been gnawed by locals for generations. In the woman’s garden, they picked wild purslane, a herbaceous succulent plant that had sprouted between neat rows of vegetables. Added to Bronze Age dishes, the herb provided a sharp crunch and a dose of vitamin C.

Wild plants like purslane help create the unique “flavorscapes” of kitchens, says Hastorf. And she believes that purslane has been part of the Mediterranean flavor for millennia. “I guess people in the past would test whatever was growing in their area,” she explains. The crunchy, healthy grass has probably passed this test and entered the regional cuisine.

As well as enhancing this particular celebration, the experience later inspired Hastorf to rethink the research he was doing halfway across the globe in Bolivia. There, on a vast plateau two miles above sea level, past humans began settling on the shores of Lake Titicaca about 4,000 years ago. Ancient mountaineers raised llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs and cultivated quinoa and a rainbow of root vegetables. Preserved parts of these cultures turned up in ancient structures and trash piles excavated by Hastorf and colleague Maria Bruno of Dickinson College. In studies published between 2011 and 2016, the researchers also identified remains of wild species that they concluded entered the mix not for culinary reasons, but as uninvited weeds or feed for grazing animals.

But at the same time, they observe the same “weeds” in the dishes prepared by the natives of the Aymara region. The species also came up when Bruno formally interviewed local people about the traditional uses of the plants, as part of his earlier dissertation research. And Hastorf remembered the purslane that flavored her Bronze Age dish. In 2020 Journal of Anthropological Archaeology paper, archaeologists combined Aymara knowledge with their archaeological evidence to reinterpret ancient dietary habits. They realized that their initial conclusion—assuming that wild species were unwanted weeds or forage—may have been wrong. These species may have been key ingredients that turned boring meals into cuisine.

For example, today locals enhance the flavor of stews with k’hoa, a mint shrub that sprouts from rocky soils at even higher elevations than Lake Titicaca. Probable remains of k’hoa have been found in some pits, suggesting that past lakeshore dwellers also climbed up to collect the hot herb. The study showed that taste preferences likely persisted around Lake Titicaca for more than 3,000 years – despite later rule of the region by the Inca Empire and European colonizers.

A 2,000-year-old site along the Silk Road yielded remains of baked grain cakes and mutton kebabs Renfang Wang

Building blocks

While Hastorf and Bruno uncovered past flavors with low-tech tools, other scientists implemented cutting-edge molecular analyses, such as proteomics. This method can list the proteins in a given substance and read the molecular building blocks of those proteins, which differ by species like a DNA code. Plus, proteomics can detect chemical modifications due to reactions that proteins have undergone. Thanks to these three layers of information, a scientist can examine a piece of food and find that it contains, say, collagen (muscle protein) from Ovis aries (the species we know as sheep) that has been barbecued (reactions, which modify the protein).

Anna Shevchenko, a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany, was, along with archaeologist Yimin Yang of the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, among the first to realize the potential of proteomics in archaeological gastronomy. In the early 2000s, she was researching poisonous caterpillars native to Brazil when she received a query from Yang: “Instead of caterpillars from Brazil, try something that’s 4,000 years old,” Shevchenko recalled. “We didn’t say no.” We like this kind of adventure.

Yang sent about a dozen yellowish lumps, the size of pennies, that were taken from the necks and chests of mummies found in the dune-swept Taklamakan Desert in northwestern China. Between 1980 and 1450 BC, the so-called Xiaohe culture managed to live, herd flocks, and farm in this barren terrain. People also buried their dead in boats like coffins. The dry desert naturally mummified the bodies and preserved other perishables stored in the graves, including the moldy lumps that Yang sent to Shevchenko.

As we hope, the analysis revealed the substance’s protein composition and clues to its recipe: the lumps appear to have started as cow’s milk, which must have been strained because the proteins are closer to skim versus raw dairy. Then the ancients probably curdled the milk by microbial fermentation. If this step were done in another way—like the rennet method used to make cottage cheese—a protein called kappa-casein would show telltale breaks. (It didn’t.) The recipe led to a kefir cheese similar to the labneh common in Middle Eastern countries today, scientists reported in 2014. Journal of Archaeological Science paper.

The researchers then analyzed milk residue found in burial baskets at Gumugou, a slightly older cemetery also in the Taklamakan Desert. Despite the proximity of the sites in time and space, “dairy production in Gumugou and Xiaohe was completely different,” says Yang. Gumugou baskets contained strained yogurt, while Xiaohe people made hard cheese, according to the team’s research, published in a 2016 issue of Quaternary International.

However, knowing these recipes does not provide an answer as to why the groups buried different dairy products. “We’re not completely reconstructing the ideas of the ancients,” Yang says. He suggests that the recipes differed because the colder climate of Xiaohe’s time caused people to be more mobile, with a need for longer-lasting, hard cheese. As for why people put dairy products in graves: “Maybe they buried them to eat after death … but it’s hard to confirm,” he says.

Since these landmark studies, scientists have applied proteomics to various cuisines. In 2022 Science of inheritance paper, Yang analyzed remains of baked grain cakes and mutton kebabs found at a 2,000-year-old site along the Silk Road.

Shevchenko recently discovered proteins possibly left over from caviar made by Mesolithic people in Germany 6,000 years ago.

And the kefir cheese that started this research for Shevchenko even found its way into her kitchen. As part of the analysis, she drew up modern comparisons and kept the bacterial starter alive for several years – making cheese about twice a week for her family. Unfortunately, the germs died while she was on vacation. “I didn’t cry, but I was sad,” she says.

Clay jars found in Jerusalem contain the remains of wine from 586 BC. Chemical analysis indicates that the wine may have been flavored with vanilla (Photo: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority).

In the jar

Molecular methods, less sophisticated than proteomics, have revealed surprising flavors and even trade connections. In 2022 FLOOR ONE paper, archaeologists examined 13 clay jars that were recovered from Jerusalem buildings that were destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the city in 586 BC. Some of the vessels bore rosette seals, indicating that they belonged to the kingdom’s royal economy. The scientists crushed and dissolved fingernail-sized pieces of the ceramic and ran the extracts through an instrument that identified the compounds based on their weight and chemical charge. The analysis found acids, alcohols, sugars and other molecules that indicated the vessels stored olive oil and wine. But several wine jars also contained key molecules in vanilla.

Study co-author Yuval Gadot balks at the thought of vanilla-flavored wine: “I don’t think I can sell it now in a restaurant,” says the Tel Aviv University archaeologist. However, the foreign plant, which must have been grown in India or East Africa, shows that the rulers of Jerusalem at the time had access to prestigious trade routes run by Assyrians, Egyptians and Babylonians. “Sometimes taste is completely cultural. If you say, “This is exotic and only [the] the ruling elite have the ability to have that, then it’s delicious. Even if it’s not,” Gadot explains.

The elite’s longing for exotic flavors probably began centuries earlier in the region. A 2013 study showed that flasks from the 11th to 9th centuries found in treasures and temples contained the essential molecule cinnamon, which at the time only grew in South Asia. The find suggests that this spice reached the Mediterranean long before ancient texts document its presence in the sixth century BC.

In addition to identifying ancient scents, Gadot is also part of research that has resurrected some of them. He and other archaeologists shared 2,000- to 5,000-year-old alcohol jugs found at sites in Israel with microbiologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The scientists extracted yeast cells from the pores in the ceramic, which turned out to be alive. Genomic analysis revealed that the cells belonged to species that could ferment. The researchers used the awakened yeast to brew beer, wine and mead, following recipes recorded in ancient Egyptian texts. Taking a sample, members of the Beer Judge Certification Program declared that the beer tasted like an English ale.

How yeast has survived for two millennia remains a mystery. It’s possible that the fungi went dormant, but the team thinks it’s more likely that the organisms continued to reproduce slowly. In this case, the yeast cells that entered today’s brew are descendants of those that fermented the ancient drink.

Either way, sipping this grog comes close to a culinary journey through time. Perhaps the yeasty aroma of fermented fruits and grains transcends the principle of taste, delighting tongues across eras and cultures.

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