May 2019 was an exciting time for fans of both ancient history and starchy vegetables, as archaeologists announced they had discovered the charred remains of roasted plant starches inside a 120,000-year-old hearth at the Klasies River Caves near the southern coast of South Africa. Now, things have gotten even wilder: Archaeologists have announced the discovery of charred vegetable fragments that are 170,000 years old in the Border Caves in Eastern South Africa. Take that, Klasies River Caves!
The discovery, announced by Wits University and published in Science, further demonstrates that our early ancestors ate a balanced diet of both proteins and carbohydrates. Several dozen charcoal fragments were discovered inside the caves in 2016, buried in an ash layer that was left behind from the fires built by the cave’s ancient inhabitants.
“The Border Cave inhabitants would have dug Hypoxis rhizomes from the hillside near the cave, and carried them back to the cave to cook them in the ashes of fireplaces,” says Professor Lyn Wadley, a scientist from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute who co-authored the report. “The fact that [these vegetables] were brought back to the cave rather than cooked in the field suggests that food was shared at the home base.”
After several years of microscopic examination, the charred organic remains were finally identified to be the rhizomes (underground plant stems) of a plant from the genus Hypoxis, also known as the Yellow Star flower.
The large number of charcoal fragments discovered at the site suggests that roasted vegetables were commonly eaten by our ancestors, and that the modern perception of early humans as voracious meat eaters is inaccurate, likely skewed by the fact that animal bones are far more likely to survive for hundreds of thousands of years than plant matter. Between this and the discovery that humans were eating grains at least 32,000 years ago, the people behind The Paleo Diet have a lot of explaining to do to thousands of hangry dieters who just want a bite of mashed potato.