Charred fragments found in 170,000-year-old ashes in a cave in southern Africa are the earliest roasted root vegetables yet found.
The finding suggest the real “Paleo diet” included lots of roasted vegetables rich in carbohydrates, similar to modern potatoes (Wadley et al., 2020).
In 2016, Lyn Wadley at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and her team found dozens of bits of charcoal in an ash layer in the Border cave in South Africa, the remnants of ancient fires lit by early humans.
By studying the charred remains of modern plants under a microscope, the team was able to identify the charcoal as being the rhizomes – or buried stems – of a plant from the genus Hypoxis.
The rhizomes of Hypoxis plants can be as rich in carbohydrates as potatoes, although they taste more like a yam, says Wadley.
They are still eaten today, though they have become rare as a result
The abundance of the rhizome fragments suggests that roasted root vegetables were a common part of the diet, contrary to the popular notion that early humans ate a lot of meat.
Most versions of the modern Paleo diet, supposedly based on what our ancestors ate, advise people to avoid potatoes as well as grains. “I’m afraid the Paleo diet is really a misnomer,” says Wadley.
Le Page, M. (2020) The Real Paleo Diet Included Lots of Carbs. New Scientist. 11 January 2020, pp.16.
Wadley, L., Backwell, L., d’Errico, F. & Sievers, C. (2020) Cooked starchy rhizomes in Africa 170 thousand years ago. Science. 367(6473), pp.87-91. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5926.