Modern diet fads, like paleo, farm-to-fork, the weird Food Babe's if-she-can't-spell-it-you-shouldn't-eat-it beliefs, harken back to a simpler time when people lived off the land, and nothing had  preservatives and it was all Whole Grain.

In reality, ancient people could not work hard enough or fast enough to create food science that would prevent booms and busts of starvation and rationing. They wanted their food processed, to turn unpalatable or even toxic foodstuffs into something that could be consumed, and they even made progress doing it 10,000 year ago. First was the use of fires or pits and the invention of ceramic cooking vessels, and those led to an expansion of food preparation techniques.

A new study has uncovered the earliest direct evidence of humans processing food found anywhere in the world. The researchers detected lipid residues of foodstuffs preserved within the fabric of unglazed cooking pots. Over half of the vessels studied were found to have been used for processing plants based on the identification of diagnostic plant oil and wax compounds. Detailed investigations of the molecular and stable isotope compositions showed a broad range of plants were processed, including grains, the leafy parts of terrestrial plants, and most unusually, aquatic plants.

Rock art painting showing a human figure collecting plants . Image credit: The Archaeological Mission in the Sahara - Sapienza University of Rome

The plant chemical signatures from the pottery show that the processing of plants was practiced for over 4,000 years, indicating the importance of plants to the ancient people of the prehistoric Sahara. The interpretations of the chemical signatures obtained from the pottery are supported by abundant plant remains preserved in remarkable condition due to the arid desert environment at the sites.

Dr Julie Dunne, a post-doctoral research associate Bristol’s School of Chemistry and lead author of the paper, said, "These findings also emphasize the sophistication of these early hunter-gatherers in their utilization of a broad range of plant types, and the ability to boil them for long periods of time in newly invented ceramic vessels would have significantly increased the range of plants prehistoric people could eat."

Processed food. It's what's for dinner in 2,000 B.C.

Citation: ‘Earliest direct evidence of plant processing in prehistoric Saharan pottery’ by J. Dunne, R. Evershed et al in Nature Plants.