World's Oldest Veggie Casserole Found in the Sahara Desert


This imagery from an ancient Roman sarcophagus shows the harvest and processing of grain. A new archaeological find predates it by thousands of years. DEA/A. Dagli Orti/DeAgostini/Getty Images
This imagery from an ancient Roman sarcophagus shows the harvest and processing of grain. A new archaeological find predates it by thousands of years. DEA/A. Dagli Orti/DeAgostini/Getty Images

Let's talk for a minute about the African Humid Period. About 10,000 years ago, the desolate wasteland of North Africa, now one of the driest, hottest, most inhospitable places on Earth, was actually pretty rad. Based on the geological evidence, as well as discoveries like fossilized bones of ancient people, cattle, and ancient rock paintings and engravings of humans cavorting with animals, scientists have discerned that the people living in the Sahara during that time weren't just surviving — they were thriving.

New evidence suggests that prehistoric humans living in modern-day Libya during the African Hot Period (AHP) were also apparently interested in the culinary arts. The research, published in the journal Nature Plants, finds the first example of ancient people cooking vegetables in ceramic pots as far back as 8200 to 6400 B.C.E.

People have been cooking in ceramic vessels for a long time – probably for about 15,000 years – and the advent of thermally resistant ceramics was no small technological advancement. Human nutrition improved like crazy once we invented a pot to cook dinner in. But what's weird is, though ceramic cooking pots existed, and though cooking renders some disgusting or toxic plants edible, and pretty much all plants more nutritious, no researchers could find examples of very old ceramic pots in which vegetables had been cooked — not until now, at least.

The new research looks at pottery shards from Takarkori and Uan Afuda, two sites in the Libyan Sahara. Based on the molecular and stable isotope makeup of the ceramics, they discovered many of the pots were used to process grains and leafy terrestrial and aquatic greens, and that this practice lasted in the area for a span of about 4,000 years. This changes a lot about how we see the use of pottery in the ancient Sahara, in addition to how we conceive of the timeline of plant domestication in Africa.

"Until now, the importance of plants in prehistoric diets has been under-recognised, but this work clearly demonstrates the importance of plants as a reliable dietary resource," said lead author Dr. Julie Dunne of Bristol's School of Chemistry, in a press release. "These findings also emphasise the sophistication of these early hunter-gatherers in their utilisation 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."



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