Cooked starchy rhizomes in Africa 170 thousand years ago

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Science  03 Jan 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6473, pp. 87-91
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz5926

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Middle Stone Age cooking

Early evidence of cooked starchy plant food is sparse, yet the consumption of starchy roots is likely to have been a key innovation in the human diet. Wadley et al. report the identification of whole, charred rhizomes of plants of the genus Hypoxis from Border Cave, South Africa, dated up to 170,000 years ago. These archaeobotanical remains represent the earliest direct evidence for the cooking of underground storage organs. The edible Hypoxis rhizomes appear to have been cooked and consumed in the cave by the Middle Stone Age humans at the site. Hypoxis has a wide geographical distribution, suggesting that the rhizomes could have been a ready and reliable carbohydrate source for Homo sapiens in Africa, perhaps facilitating the mobility of human populations.

Science, this issue p. 87


Plant carbohydrates were undoubtedly consumed in antiquity, yet starchy geophytes were seldom preserved archaeologically. We report evidence for geophyte exploitation by early humans from at least 170,000 years ago. Charred rhizomes from Border Cave, South Africa, were identified to the genus Hypoxis L. by comparing the morphology and anatomy of ancient and modern rhizomes. Hypoxis angustifolia Lam., the likely taxon, proliferates in relatively well-watered areas of sub-Saharan Africa and in Yemen, Arabia. In those areas and possibly farther north during moist periods, Hypoxis rhizomes would have provided reliable and familiar carbohydrate sources for mobile groups.

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