Neanderthals

I’m a little obsessed with Neanderthals at the moment. Maybe it’s because I read that they may have died out because of “inability to adapt to climate change” (scary!); maybe it’s because Biden made news for referencing them – or maybe it’s because my 23 and Me results show that I’ve got more Neanderthal DNA than 95% of their customers.

Whatever. I knew little about Neanderthals until my interest was tweaked these last few months. And now I can’t get enough of them. Of course, I have a great curiosity about their eating habits. It seems that in the last few years scientists studying these hominids (I had to look that term up) have gone from considering them meat-eaters to realizing that they ate much more, depending upon where they were living.

Here’s a quote from Richard Wangham, a Harvard biological anthropology professor:

These lovely new data on fecal sterols confirm what many people have been increasingly thinking, which is that something is wrong with the inference that Neanderthals were 100 percent carnivores…In the end it would not be surprising to find that Neanderthals show little difference from sapiens in their diet composition.”

Wow. “Lovely new data on fecal sterols” is not quite the wording you’d expect! 🙂 Wangham is responding to new findings from a MIT study about vegetable-eating Neanderthals.

Apparently, scientists gain much of their knowledge not only from fecal sterols – but also from teeth and plaque – and their ability to do that using ancient DNA analysis has markedly improved in the last 20 years. Today in Andy’s Corner you’ll find Andy focusing on a 1956 anthropological study that also includes teeth. Surely you’ve heard of the human group called the Nacirema? Ha!

Research published in 2017 in Nature.com compared plaque DNA from Neanderthal remains found at the El Sidrón cave in Spain and the Spy cave in Belgium. The analysis shows that whereas Spy Neanderthals apparently ate woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep, El Sidrón’s residents foraged for plants. More specifically, El Sidrón’s residents – over 50,000 years ago – were dining on mushrooms, moss, and pine nuts.

Even more recently scientists announced the discovery of the remains of 9 Neanderthals near Rome, Italy. According to The History Blog, given the condition of their teeth, these early humans apparently “foraged for cereals.” Can someone help me here? How do you forage for cereal?

Barley grains were found in the teeth of a Neanderthal

Before we get to our recipes, here’s a 2021 North Carolina State U video which fits our theme beautifully. It’s a little hard to know if it was tongue-in-cheek or dead serious. The title? Eat Prey Run – A Neanderthal Cook-A-Long!

Given all this info on my ancestors, I thought a vegetarian dish of mushrooms and pine nuts seemed perfect (note: I chose to pass on including a wooly rhinoceros recipe or a moss recipe). The recipe also has some pasta (made with cereal grains AND coming from Italy) to make this even more relevant! Yes, I know pine nuts are expensive, but you use so few of them at a time that it’s not as spendy as it may seem. Plus, the left-over nuts will keep well in the fridge.

Though we know now that the Neanderthals dry-roasted and boiled plants, I don’t believe there is any indication – at least not yet – that the Neanderthals baked cookies with their pine nuts. Nonetheless we’re offering up a delicious pine nut cookie recipe. Savor your family’s historical ingredients, if not their cooking techniques.

And if you too have a relatively hefty amount of Neanderthal DNA (fact check: no one living today has more than a minuscule amount when looking at the big DNA picture) – and you want to know more about your kin – here’s a brief, helpful overview published by The Smithsonian.

Mushroom and Pine Nut Pasta

Mushroom and Pine Nut Pasta

Adapted from Elizabeth Minchilli.com

  • 1 1/2 lb mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 T olive oil
  • salt and pepper (about 1 tsp Diamond kosher salt should be enough)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch arugula, trimmed and roughly chopped – or use spinach, chard, or another favorite cooking green (I use about 6 c of lightly packed greens)
  • 1/4 c pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 c grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
  • 1/2 – 1 lb orecciette – or pasta of your choice (note: we prefer going light on the pasta)

Add the olive oil to a large pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sliced mushrooms and let them cook, stirring only after they’ve had a chance to brown for a few minutes.  Turn the heat to low and let them cook until tender, then add the garlic, season with salt and pepper and let cook another few minutes until the garlic is cooked through. Turn off the heat and add the arugula, stirring it to wilt.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving a cup of pasta cooking water.

Heat the mushrooms if they have cooled off, and add the pasta to the pan with the mushrooms, stirring to combine. Add half the water and continue stirring for another minute. Turn off the heat, add the cheese and a bit more water, and stir well to combine. If it seems dry add more water. Add the pine nuts, and stir.  Serve and enjoy.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

Pine Nut Cookies

Pine Nut Cookies

  • Servings: makes about 30 two-inch cookies
  • Print
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook.

  • 8 T (1 stick) butter, softened
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 c flour
  • 1/2 c toasted pine nuts (note: life will go on if you don’t toast them)

Heat oven to 300 degrees.  Butter 2 baking sheets.  In a mixer or food processor, beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolk, vanilla, and flour – just until blended.  Don’t overbeat.  Mix in the pine nuts.

Drop the batter a heaping teaspoon at a time onto the baking sheets.  Do a crosshatch pattern on the top of each with a fork dipped into water; press down with the fork to flatten the dough.

Bake until pale golden, about 18-22 minutes.  Cool on the pan for a few minutes and then use a spatula to move the cookies to a rack to cool.  

These little cookies freeze well – and are even yummy eaten straight from the freezer.  Been there; done that!

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

6 Comments

  1. Frankie Ewing says:

    My 23andMe results say I have 332 Neanderthal variants, more than 99% of their customers, and I do like pine nuts (but not moss).

    Like

    • theRaggedys says:

      Andy here: Hmm. Do you think that your and Ann’s Neanderthal heritage, and not your good looks and brains, could be the reason you were such a good fit with the Gamma Phis at CC? Just thinking out loud.

      Like

  2. Janet R Sims says:

    This makes me think of my parents. My father was already asleep when my mother drove in late one night from a trip to the town where she was born. At her birthplace, she had picked up a piece of moss. She put it in a saucer on the kitchen counter and gave it a little water. The next morning she found a note from my father beside the saucer: “I don’t care whose recipe you have – I will not eat moss.”

    Like

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