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Photo of the skull of a female Neanderthal in a cave.

This female Neanderthal, found in a cave in Gibraltar, may have enjoyed foods heated in birch bark trays.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KENNETH GARRETT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published April 30, 2014

Neanderthal cooking likely wouldn't have won any prizes on Top Chef, but a paleontologist suggests that our ancient cousins knew how to cook a mean stew, without even a stone pot to their name.

"I think it's pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled," said University of Michigan archaeologist John Speth at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas. "They were around for a long time, and they were very clever with fire."

Neanderthals were a species of early humans who lived in Europe and the Near East until about 30,000 years ago. Conventional wisdom holds that boiling to soften food or render fat from bones may have been one of the advantages that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, while Neanderthals died out. (Related: "Surprise! 20 Percent of Neanderthal Genome Lives on in Modern Humans, Scientists Find.")

But based on evidence from ancient bones, spears, and porridge, Speth believes our Stone Age cousins likely boiled their food. He suggests that Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray by relying on a trick of chemistry: Water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container, even flammable bark or hides.

"You can boil in just about anything as long as you take it off the flame pretty quickly," Speth says. His presentation included video of water boiling in a paper cup (the water keeps the paper from reaching its ignition temperature) and mention of scenes in Jean Auel's 1980 novel, Clan of the Cave Bear (later a movie), in which Neanderthals boiled stews in hide pouches.

"This wasn't an invention of some brainy modern people," Speth says. (Related: "Neanderthals Lived in Small, Isolated Populations, Gene Analysis Shows.")

Quest for Fire

While conceding that Neanderthals were handy with wood and fire, archaeologists such as Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson want to let Speth's idea simmer for a while before they swallow it.

"Whether they went as far as boiling stuff in birch bark containers or in hides is harder to evaluate," Stiner says. "I am not convinced."

The use of fire by humans goes back more than 300,000 years in Europe, where evidence is seen in Neanderthal hearths. (Related: "Oldest Known Hearth Found in Israel Cave.")

But most research has supported the idea that Stone Age boiling, which relied on heating stones in fire pits and dropping them into water, arrived on the scene too late for Neanderthals.

Evidence of cracked "boiling stones" in caves used by early modern humans, for example, goes back only about 26,000 years, too recent for Neanderthals. And pottery for more conventional boiling appears to be only about 20,000 years old.

Birch Bubbling

But who needs boiling stones or pots? Speth suggests that Neanderthals boiled foods in birch bark twisted into trays, a technology that prehistoric people used to boil maple syrup from tree sap.

Archaeologists have demonstrated that Neanderthals relied on birch tar as an adhesive for hafting spear points as long as 200,000 years ago. Making birch tar requires clever cooking in an oxygen-free container, says paleontologist Michael Bisson of Canada's McGill University.

"I've burned myself trying to do it," Bisson says, adding that Neanderthals were plenty clever when it came to manipulating birch. They likely ignited rolled-up birch bark "cigars" and plunged them into holes to cook the tar in an oxygen-free environment.

If the tar is exposed to oxygen in the air as it cooks, "it explodes," Bisson adds.

Supporting the boiling idea, Speth said that animal bones found in Neanderthal settings are 98 percent free of scavenger's gnawing marks, which he says suggests the fat had been cooked off.

And some grains found in the teeth of a Neanderthal buried in Iraq's Shanidar Cave site appear to have been cooked, according to a 2011 Proceedings of the National Academies of Science report.

"It is speculative, but I think it is pretty likely that they knew how to boil," Speth says.

In a separate talk at the meeting, University of Michigan paleontologist Andrew White noted recent evidence that Neanderthal mothers weaned their children at an earlier age than human mothers typically do. He said the early transition from milk to food supports the theory that Neanderthals boiled their youngsters' food to make it more digestible.

The idea that Neanderthals could probably boil their food first came to Speth as he watched an episode of the TV show Survivorman. Stuck in East Africa with only dirty water to drink, host Les Stroud sterilized the muddy liquid by boiling it in a plastic bag.

"Who says you can't learn anything from TV?" says Speth. "I figured if we could boil water in a plastic bag, then Neanderthals could do it in a birch tray."

Correction: The discplines of two experts mentioned in the story, Dr. Speth and Dr. Stiner, have been corrected.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

19 comments
Endrikh Darkvine
Endrikh Darkvine

must have been one hell of a stew full of bones and animal parts :p

Margaret Bond
Margaret Bond

Many human cultures have boiled and cooked in such "flammable" containers as baskets woven of plant fibers. They simply heat up stones and drop them in the soup, mush, stew, or whatever! Recent ethnographic evidence includes most of the Native Californians.

Peter Kraus
Peter Kraus

Ainu, Basque and Aboriginal people were the ones that most likely got the most influenced by Neanderthal culture - they are known for their Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle, connection with nature, living in small groups, and their philosophies and art are mostly  revolving around the concept of harmony - not agression and dominance. These indigenous people are well known for tollerant behaviour - I doubt they agressively killed off another human species, nor do I think they outcompeted them for ressources - the opposite is far more likely: they made friends, interbred and learned from one another -  ultimately the Neanderthal got assimilated into the same Gene-Pool. 


It is the second wave of people that made it out of Africa that is mostly agressive, trying to dominate, exploit and ultimately deplete their environment out of shortsighted arrogance, greed and paranoia. Which all is based on the preservatist ideologie that values the Afterlife over our current one in an attempt to fool people into a submissive state while retaining the power of the few on top.


I think we all would benefit from being a bit more down to earth, like our early Hunter Gatherer ancestors or it will be us who will go extinct next... because technological progress is not necessarily a sustainable concept...


"Neanderthal cooking likely wouldn't have won any prizes on Top Chef..."


I wouldn't be too hasty with that conclusion - Basque cuisine is highly regarded, maybe because of its Neanderthal heritage? ;)

David Webb
David Webb

Unprovable hypotheses are not very scientific, but obviously they garner headlines. There is evidence that Neanderthals cooked food, but why speculate about such specific methods when Occam's Razor suggests much simpler and commonly know prehistoric methods of cooking? For example, one can boil water in a hole in the ground by dropping hot rocks in it, and if one doesn't care for a bit of grit in one's diet, merely line the hole with a skin. Cooking isn't rocket science.

Meredith Riley
Meredith Riley

This is so cool!! I can't imagine that they boiled water that long ago!! Is there any specific  museum that has this evidence in it?? We would love to send our travelers from My7Lives there!

Laurel Hutch
Laurel Hutch

I'm surprised that no scientist has proposed that the Neanderthals were killed off by the exposure to a host of bacteria and viruses brought to them when they met and mingled with the Cro-Magnons. That is what killed off a majority of Native Americans when America was discovered, and it has killed off isolated hunter gathers today, when modern humans discovered and mingled with them.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

Fire must have been the GOD of ancient man.  Spending time around fire one would guess invention of cooking tools would be inevitable. 

Marcos Toledo
Marcos Toledo

I wonder what new surprises  about Neanderthal behavior awaits us in the future proving how really human they were. They look more human the more we study them a illustration of their technique for boiling water and food would have help  the reader with this story.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I was under the assumption that the Neanderthal's were cross breeding with Humans and that there are many people alive today with bits of their DNA still in them! With that being the fact I would assume that many of the habits that were once thought to be "Human Only" were often used by them too. Who knows, Maybe Grandma's old recipe has been around for longer than we thought!!!

Jim Erskine
Jim Erskine

Considering they survived for at least 100,000 years, Neanderthals were probably more sophisticated than we give then credit for and had mastered their natural enviornment

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

Did somebody find a cookbook? If so, I'd love to see a copy.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@David Webb I would have thought the same thing, that hot stone cooking would be the earliest method,  but the article implies (based on boiling stones) that the technique didn't come along until much later.

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

@Laurel Hutch  The Americas hadn't just been discovered when Europeans decided to come over. North and South America  were already inhabited by my ancesters.  Also hunter gathers today are modern humans as well.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@Laurel Hutch I'm sure it has been proposed. Any disease wouldn't have to kill all, just weaken a population enough that the invaders can roll over them. 

My hypothesis is that we humans have never been particularly tolerant as a species, especially when it comes to sharing resources with those not like us. Those "not like us" would be seen as untrustworthy and stealing from our children and thus they need to be driven out! If we had them on the ropes, get them before they recover and attack us. If the Neanderthals were mostly like us, they probably had the same concerns. We are all the progeny of the winners in this struggle.

One side of the civilization story is the ability to expand our concept of "like us" to beyond the clan.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

Hey Marcos, I know a few people that could pass as Neanderthals TODAY!

Kinda scary actually, I saw a guy that was all "Road Raged" the other day that looked just like the "Ice Man" that they found a while back. Maybe it was his long lost Nephew! Ha Ha!

Suzanne Ljubic
Suzanne Ljubic

@Dwayne LaGrou : the Ice Man was not Neanderthal. He was our species, Homo sapiens. Further, comparison of our genome and Neanderthals' genome shows that it is modern humans - that's us - that has the genes for aggression. Your Road Rager is not a Neanderthal type at all, but just another example of Homo sapiens.

WildBill @WB
WildBill @WB

@Dwayne LaGrou Don't you think that maybe we're still here and they're all gone because they were peaceful and we were the violent ones?

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