Neanderthals Cooked Stews Inside Animal Skins

Mary Nichols

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Neanderthal 4

Neanderthals may have developed methods to cook their food. (Photo : REUTERS/Nikola Solic)

A new study suggests that Neanderthals may have known how to cook their food - using fire and skin bags to make primitive stews.

"I think it's pretty likely the Neanderthals boiled," said University of Michigan paleontologist John Speth at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas.

"They were around for a long time, and they were very clever with fire."

Neanderthals, a species of early humans - lived until about 30,000 years ago.

Experts believe that boiling to soften food or remove fat from bones may have been one of the advantages that allowed Homo sapiens to thrive, while Neanderthals died out, writes National Geographic.

Speth believes they likely boiled food based on evidence from ancient bones, spears as well as early examples of porridge.

He suggests Neanderthals boiled using only a skin bag or a birch bark tray by relying on the proven theory that water will boil at a temperature below the ignition point of almost any container.

"You can boil in just about anything as long as you take it off the flame pretty quickly," Speth says.

"This wasn't an invention of some brainy modern people," Speth says.

Paleontologist Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona in Tucson told National Geographic that while she believes Neanderthals did use fire - she did not think they had mastered the technique used to boil food.

"Whether they went as far as boiling stuff in birch bark containers or in hides is harder to evaluate," Stiner told National Geographic.

"I am not convinced."

Evidence from Neanderthal hearths has shown that early humans used fire as long as 300,000 years ago.

However, most research suggests that Stone Age boiling - which relied on placing heated stones into water - was a method that evolved after the Neanderthals died out.

Evidence of cracked "boiling stones" in the caves of early modern humans - goes back about 26,000 years - which is too recent for Neanderthals, writes National Geographic.

Speth suggests that Neanderthals boiled foods in twisted trays made from birch bark.  Early humans used this method to boil maple syrup from tree sap. 

Archaeologists have demonstrated that Neanderthals relied on birch tar as an adhesive for hafting spear points as long as 200,000 years ago.

Making birch tar requires clever cooking in an oxygen-free container, paleontologist Michael Bisson of Canada's McGill University, told National Geographic.

Speth also said that animal bones found in Neanderthal settings are 98 percent free of scavenger's gnawing marks, which suggests the fat had been cooked off.

"It is speculative, but I think it is pretty likely that they knew how to boil," Speth said.