The Oldest Foods Still Eaten Today, After Thousands of Years

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Some of the foods we eat go back to the dawn of human history
Some of the foods we eat go back to the dawn of human historyCredit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

So it turns out that certain mafiosi in Reggio Calabria, southern Italy, stocked up on dead dormice. The deceased rodents weren’t being kept in freezers as an agent of thawed terrorization – you wouldn’t wake up to find a head in your bed.

The otherwise nocturnal rodents would be baked, according to the BBC, which reported that police had seized 235 deceased dormice. In fact, the mafiosi were merely sustaining a tradition dating to their ancient Roman ancestors, who enjoyed the rodents stuffed with pork and “mouse meat from all fleshy parts of the mouse,” with spicing and garum (a popular sauce made of rotting fish guts and bits).

Roman cooks were advised to sew up the dormouse before baking, roasting or, in a pinch, boiling it. The Novium Museum website suggests you try the recipe using the more readily available chicken instead of dormice, which are not technically mice, though they look like it; they’re cousins of the beaver.

A dormouseCredit: Alexeames

The notion of eating mice or rats might nauseate some, but the fact is that rodents are eaten with gusto in much of the world. Before the advent of long-distance trade, which actually began thousands of years ago, we were all locavores making the best of what we had at hand. If the deer are gone, let them eat dormice, still cooked the ancient way.

Indeed, some of our culinary habits go back to the dimmest reaches of our history, such as cooking animals on the fire, aka barbecuing. Our prehistoric ancestors achieved control of fire hundreds of thousands of years ago; possibly right here in Israel about 400,000 years ago, which means they could ignite it at will.

Cooking meat over a fire began before modern humans even evolvedCredit: Viktor1 / Shutterstock

It is also postulated that not only ancient Homo sapiens but Neanderthals were actually boiling foodstuffs to soften them tens of thousands of years before pots were even invented, maybe by putting the items into a sort of pouch made of animal hide or bark, which would be placed on the fire.

With the invention of ceramics, stews in clay pots developed. Tellingly, the very earliest pots known, found in Xianrendong and Yuchanyan caves in northern China and dated to as much as 20,000 years ago, are shaped sort of like bags. The Jōmon culture of Japan were also pioneers of potting, over 15,000 years ago – making extraordinarily elaborate ware. Residue analysis shows the pots were used, among other things, to make seafood stews and/or soups.

Which just goes to show that the modern mania with raw flesh such as steak tartare, sushi and sashimi bucks a trend going back tens or hundreds of thousands of years. And by the way, improperly treated raw animal can give you parasites.

Chinese pot going back over 10,000 yearsCredit: Zhangzhugang

Ancient and still around

To accompany their fire-roasted or stewed animal, prehistoric hominins and humans would forage for fruit, roots and so on. 

Nowadays we don’t depend on local vegetation, but if one wishes to hark back to ancestral diets, one can look for a tour of Tel Aviv focusing on identifying edible weeds; wash off the dog pee and go for it. And even before the advent of agriculture in the Near East, some people were augmenting their diet with bread.

In Israel, it seems pre-Natufians began monkeying with grain cultivation at least 23,000 years ago, but sustenance agriculture proper would only begin a good 10,000 years later.

Some suspect the impetus underlying early grain cultivation was a desire to make beer. Maybe that’s so, but the fact is that in 2018, archaeologists reported finding a smoking pita: a bit of charred flatbread made of wheat, barley and other plants from about 14,400 years ago, in the Black Desert of Jordan, at a site called Shubayqa.

A cooking pot from China going back about 8,000 years Credit: Ayelie / Editor at Large

The earliest breads were likely made on open fires; ovens came later. However they were made, by about 10,000 to 9,000 years ago, one finds evidence of bread-making not only in the Mediterranean region: for instance, in Çatalhöyük, Turkey, but southern Europe too.

Leavening developed at some stage too. Pliny the Elder describes a well-evolved process among the barbarians:

“When the grain of Gaul and Spain is made into a drink [beer], they use the foam that forms during fermentation [for their bread]; because of this, the bread there is lighter than breads elsewhere.”

Actually, people may have been making bread much earlier. Grindstones go back tens of thousands of years, but we generally don’t know what they were used for. And what did one consume with the earliest breads, aside from beer or wine, which also go back to prehistory? Apparently, not cheese, but its time would come soon.

The first gouda

Our friends the goat, sheep and cow were domesticated about 11,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Near East, in the then-paradisiacal lands from Israel and Iran to Turkey. But the animals seem to have been taken captive and selectively bred (the hallmark of domestication) for meat.

Milk is another story. It seems the basal human condition is to stop being able to digest milk after being weaned. We lose the enzyme that activates lactase, which is the enzyme that digests the milk sugar lactose. Mammals don’t suckle into adulthood, so why waste metabolic resources in producing an enzyme no longer needed?

A cooking pot from the camp of the Roman Sixth Ironclad Legion camp in Megiddo, Israel: A soldier's remains had been found insideCredit: Yotam Tepper

But today, many Europeans and Middle Easterners can digest milk in adulthood (less so Asians, for instance). Why? Thanks to mutation in the lactase deactivation mechanism, the lactase stays “on.”

Evidence from residue in clay pots and plaque in teeth deduces that, generally, people began eating dairy centuries to millennia after first domesticating the animals. In the Near East, based on residue analysis in ancient pottery, dairy goes back at least 9,000 years – centuries after the domestication of the herbivores. Evidence of dairying was found in Çatalhöyük, touted by some as one of the oldest proper towns in the world, albeit a socially dysfunctional one. Dairying apparently reached Western Europe 7,500 years ago and spread to Great Britain perhaps 6,000 years ago.

Some astonishingly old specimens of cheese have survived the millennia, sort of, such as one about 3,200 years old found in a jar inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. It was made from a mix of milks, from African buffalo, sheep and goat.

The earliest dairy eaters may not have been lactose-tolerant, though it’s thought that the mutation existed in some folk and conferred an advantage, which would explain its rapid spread once milk consumption arose. There is also a theory the ancestors began dairying by heating the milk and making cheese that was easier to digest than raw dairy.

A recent paper in Nature even suggested that dairying was a key energy source behind the great Yamnaya migration from the central Asian steppes to Scandinavia and Siberia during the Early Bronze Age. The Yamnaya are believed to have exploited the horse not just for locomotion and meat but for milk, though other steppe people only discovered the joys of horses and milk later.

So cheese wasn’t around when the first bread was barbecued but maybe a proto-hummus was: legumes were domesticated, it seems, about the same time as the farm animals.

Enter the chicken

Maybe we ate the early bread with wild egg, possibly cooked in some form.

It’s impossible to know when a human being first cooked an egg. Raw, we have surely been eating them going back to our roots as a rat in the trees 65 million years ago. Yet it has been postulated that when people first domesticated the Southeast Asian chicken, our modern staple for mass egg production, it wasn’t for their ova or even their meat, but for the irascibility of the male: According to historical sources and even some mosaics, people liked watching roosters maul each other. Even the earliest domesticators of chicken in Southeast Asia may have done so at least partly for entertainment, as much as 8,000 years ago.

A chicken Credit: CLODAGH KILCOYNE/REUTERS

By the way, the ancient Egyptians are credited with inventing the pie, essentially, a sweet or savory food with an edible lid. Their recipe for a sort of chicken pie (maybe ensuing after the rooster fight produced a loser) goes back over 4,000 years. It bears adding that the archaeological record shows chickens reaching ancient Egypt not much more than 4,000 years ago. As for pie, the Greeks and Romans would perfect the wonder all the more.

Apropos, the ancient Romans and Greeks also enjoyed a good rooster ding-dong. But by then they were clearly eating the lady birds' eggs too, as we can tell from the Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius’ recipe for sweet and sour poached eggs.

It’s hard to know about the egg consumption habits in ancient societies because they don’t keep well in the archaeological record. It bears noting that archaeologists digging in ancient Yavneh, central Israel, found that rarest of such records – an intact egg – in a sewer system dating to about 1,000 years ago, then accidentally broke it.

That wasn’t even the first time that happened. An unrelated study in Aylesbury, England, found not one but four eggs dating to the Roman era, from about 1,700 years ago, and three cracked. Apparently the smell was impressive. The fourth one was rescued. It is speckled.

The Yavneh egg, pre-accidentCredit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP

Back in prehistory, if one wanted an egg, perhaps not fried but at least greasy, it was not a dream. Olive oil goes back at least 8,000 years, and may have preceded the consumption of the bitter olive fruit itself. To properly fry an egg as we think of it, though, one may have had to wait for the advent of metal, and a furnace recently discovered in ancient Be’er Sheva is thought to be one of the world’s oldest, at 6,500 years.

By the way, one wonders: if mammals lose lactase after weaning, what is the deal with cats and cream? Well, like us, some cats are lactose tolerant and some aren’t. If your cat greets dairy with delight and stays well, fine; if s/he subsequently evinces flatulence, vomits, or develops diarrhea after some hours, intolerance may be the reason. Replace the treat with meat.

And given the recent supply chain crunches, you may want to take that course in identifying edible weeds.

The chicken and its aggressive tendencies have been acknowledged throughout modern history (at Comic Con, 2021)Credit: Charles Sykes/AP

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