Our starch cravings date back to cave dwellers

Starches have been dietary staples for even longer than we thought. Archaeological evidence now confirms that humans have been cooking plant starches for up to 120 000 years — more than 100 000 years longer than we’ve farmed them.

An international team of archaeologists identified traces of prehistoric charred starches in the Klasies River caves on the coast in the Tsitsikamma area. The findings affirm older theories that had lacked the archaeological evidence. In a paper titled The Role of Processed Starch in the Early Modern Human Diet, lead author Cynthia Larbey, of the University of Cambridge, said there had previously only been genetic and biological evidence to suggest that humans had been eating starch for this long. This new evidence also supports the hypothesis that starch digestion genes evolved as a specific “adaptive response to an increased starch diet”.

Co-author Sarah Wurz, associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, said the starch remains show that early humans were “ecological geniuses” who could “exploit their environments intelligently for suitable foods and perhaps medicines”. These cave dwellers knew to balance their diets as best they could, with protein and fats from fish and animals.

This research is part of ongoing work into how Middle Stone Age people made use of tools, plants and fire. The research dates back to the 1960s, when by Ronald Singer and John Wymer started excavating. From 1984, Hilary Deacon directed research, and it was first suggested that the hearths contained plants.

We now know not only that Deacon was right, but also that humans have always been undaunted in pursuit of their cravings. “Starch diet isn’t something that happens when we started farming,” said Larbey — it’s “as old as humans themselves”.

This article was first published in atlasobscura.com

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