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No. 2346:
Prehistoric Food

Today, wat did we eat, long ago? The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Jane Renfrew's book on Prehistoric Cookery might seem pretty audacious at first. Prehistory means we have no written record, and food is the most transient element of our material culture. Yet Renfrew has been able to reconstruct a great deal.

Kneading breadFood is biodegradable, but the implements used to prepare and cook it are not. Food turns up in ancient art, all the way back to cave paintings. Old bones and shells remain to tell us what creatures we ate and often howwe ate them. Occasional humans have been found, preserved since ancient times in peat or in ice. We've learned much from the contents of their stomachs.

This slim volume is both a cookbook and a history. Most of Renfrew's evidence comes from gathering and farming societies that rose after the last Ice Age. So it leans toward vegetarian food. 

But she offers evidence that even ancient hunters ate a diet of only twenty percent meat. And, in agricultural societies, meat was largely a garnish. Those people drank a lot of soup and ate many forms of gruel. They inclined to season both with meat stock -- fats and less desirable animal parts. For that matter, very little of any fish or animal went to waste. Take hakka muggies:

Seneca pit cookingA muggie is a fish stomach. Take the stomach of a ling, she says, wash it carefully and fill it with layers of cod liver and oatmeal. Tie it off and boil it gently for a half an hour. 

She tells how to extract, and mix with flour, the marrow of large animal bones -- how to make fish soup from the "trimmings" and heads of large fish. And we realize how fastidious we've grown in our eating habits today. We may eat worse things, but we keep the organic realities of our food out of sight.

Renfrew's plant recipes are easier to digest mentally. Nettle puree is exactly that -- a puree of young, still-tender, nettles mixed with sorrel, dandelion, spinach, or watercress. She recommends cooking it in fast-boiling water to preserve the nutrients. She tells how to make pudding from tansy leaves or peas. And breads need not be made from wheat. Riddle bread is made from oats, blaanda bread from barley and oats. 

Actually, many of those odd breads can be found in stores today. And her oatmeal porridge is made exactly as my mother made it, back in my own Stone Age. But, while I put brown sugar on mine, Renfrew tells us to sweeten it with honey. 

What a striking variety of edible stuff we once found in our forests and coastlines. We are a profoundly omnivorous species. It's safe to say that we have, now or then, eaten everything that ever could be eaten. And we've contrived ways to make it all palatable. I don't plan to build a clay oven in the backyard -- to begin subsisting on bird's heads, dandelions, and acorns. At same time, I'm here only because my forbears were able to do just that.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. Renfrew, Prehistoric Cookery: Recipes & History. (London: English Heri-tage, 1985/2005).

Greek bread-making image and Lascaux cave hunting scene courtesy of Wikipedia.

Cave painting 

Boy Scout version of ancient cooking