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Earliest evidence of the cooking and eating of starch

last modified May 01, 2019 08:12 AM
Charred food remains from hearths in Klasies River Cave, South Africa provide the earliest archaeological evidence that anatomically modern humans were roasting and eating plant starches, such as those from tubers and rhizomes, as early as 120,000 years ago.


 (L) The main cave site at Klasies River, South Africa. Image credit: C. Larbey (R) Main site plan showing sample locations. Credit: C. Larbey and D. Redhouse


New research published today in the Journal of Human Evolution provides the earliest archaeological evidence that anatomically modern humans were roasting and eating plant starches as early as 120,000 years ago.

Lead author Cynthia Larbey of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge says, “Our findings provide the archaeological evidence that has previously been lacking to support the hypothesis that the duplication of the starch digestion genes is an adaptive response to an increased starch diet.”

“This is very exciting. The genetic and biological evidence previously suggested that early humans would have been eating starches, but this research had not been done before. So, at Klasies River we took a team approach, firstly to find and analyse undisturbed hearths and secondly, to take botanical samples from those hearths and compare findings.”

Klasies River is a very famous early human occupation site on the Cape coast of South Africa. Co-author Professor Sarah Wurz of the University of the Witwatersrand was key to the project providing depth of knowledge and understanding of this world renowned but complex site. Professor Wurz was also crucial in bringing together this multi-disciplinary team which included co-author Dr Susan Mentzer of Eberhard Karls Universitӓt Tübingen and the University of Arizona, who initially identified the small (c. 30cm in diameter) hearths.

Larbey continues, “The results show these small ashy hearths were used for cooking food and starchy roots and tubers were clearly part of their diet, both from the earliest levels at around 120,000 years ago through to 65,000 years ago. So, despite changes in hunting strategies and stone tool technologies, they are still cooking roots and tubers.”


Lead author Cynthia Larbey walks to the mouth of Klasies River Cave, South Africa to excavate in 2015.

Image credit: C. Larbey


The wider implications of this new research include a glimpse into early human migration. The ability to use cooked roots and tubers as a staple provided greater adaptability for humans to colonise new regions of the world.

Larbey adds, “Starch diet isn’t something that happens when we start farming, but rather, is as old as humans themselves.”

Cooked starchy food in hearths ca. 120 kya and 65 kya (MIS 5e and MIS 4) from Klasies River Cave, South Africa – Cynthia Larbey, Susan M. Mentzer, Bertrand Ligouis, Sarah Wurz, Martin K. Jones Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 131, 2019, Pages 210-227, ISSN 0047-2484.

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