In A Nutshell
The tough, brutal environment of prehistoric Europe conjures up images of gruff cavemen hunting giant mammoths and stuffing their faces with barely cooked flesh. It’s a brutal—and tasteless—meal. But prehistoric Europeans did have a splash of modern cuisine in their diets: In addition to using spices in their cooking, ancient Europeans were particularly fond of milk and cheese.
The Whole Bushel
Hunter-gatherers, our forebears, were primarily concerned with caloric intake. After all, the quality of a meal took a distant second to acquiring enough food to survive.
But plain meat can get a bit boring sometimes. That’s exactly why prehistoric Europeans began to spice their food—as far back as 6,000 years ago. Garlic mustard has been found in ancient pottery shards in modern Germany and Denmark. Since the spice has little nutritional value, it has been surmised that it was used to enhance the flavor of ancient European meals.
Spices may have been in use in other parts of the world even earlier. For example, traces of coriander have been found in an Israeli cave dated to 23,000 years ago.
Around the same time they were spicing their food, many Northern Europeans were acquiring a taste for milk. With the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers began to domesticate animals like cattle and were milking them between 7,500 and 6,500 years ago (we know this, again, thanks to some high-quality ancient storage pots).
In regions with more sparse food options, milk became a lifesaver, as it was an easy source of nutrition. The human body usually stops producing the lactase enzyme—which allows us to digest dairy—after the breastfeeding period. A few biological mutants in the cattle-raising populations didn’t shut off their lactase production at adulthood and were therefore able to utilize milk as a food source without any uncomfortable side effects. These people were less likely to die of malnutrition or lack of food, and therefore were able to have more offspring, propagating lactose tolerance.
For this reason, many Northern Europeans (and other cattle-rearing populations, like the Maasai of East Africa) have much lower rates of lactose intolerance then the French, Spanish, or Chinese.
With milk comes cheese. Thanks to yet more ancient pottery, we know that prehistoric Europeans were eating cheese as early as 7,500 years ago. Since just about everyone was lactose intolerant back then, cheese was much easier to digest than milk, since it has less lactose.
Show Me The Proof
BBC News: Prehistoric Europeans spiced their cooking
BBC Food: Evidence of world’s ‘oldest’ cheese-making found
BBC News: Prehistoric Britons’ taste for milk
Berkeley University: Evo in the News: Got lactase?