The Sciences

5 Ancient Foods Still Eaten Today

From cheesecake to popcorn, our ancient ancestors were consuming some of our favorite foods well before we may have realized.

By Allison FuttermanFeb 3, 2022 12:00 PM
honey
Credit: (Subbotina Anna/Shutterstock)

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In ancient times, food sources were essentially limited to what could be hunted or gathered. But people were always resourceful and found ways to optimize and preserve what they had. Methods such as drying, fermenting, smoking and pickling were used to keep food from spoiling. There is evidence that people consumed certain foods like butter and bread going back thousands of years — as well as beer and wine. Here are five foods eaten in ancient times that we still eat today.

Cheesecake

In Greece, anthropologists found cheesecake molds dating back to 2,000 BCE. Cheesecake was commonly a wedding cake in ancient Greece. It is believed to have also been consumed by athletes during the first Olympics in 776 BCE. The first official cheesecake recipe dates from 230 CE — and was written by Greek author Athenaeus. After the Roman conquest of Greece, they altered cheesecake recipes by adding crushed cheese and eggs. It was considered a delicacy and served at celebrations. The Romans called the cake by the (unappetizing) name of “placenta,” and baked it either within pastry or on a pastry base. By 1000 CE, cheesecake had spread to Western Europe and was thriving in Scandinavia and Great Britain. Now cheesecake is enjoyed in many parts of the world, especially New York City, which claims to have the best cheesecake around!

Chocolate 

Today we think of chocolate as a delicious, sweet treat, but it wasn’t always so. Scientists discovered ancient Olmec pots and vessels dating back to about 1500 BCE had residue of theobromine, a chemical property of the cacao bean. Next, the Mayans took cacao beyond the consumption of chocolate. They worshiped it and used it in drinks as part of celebrations and transactions. Chocolate was enjoyed during mealtime in Mayan culture, often combined with chili peppers and honey in a thick drink. Cacao became so valuable that it was used as currency for trade. In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed a process that led to the creation of cocoa powder, enabling cheaper production and increasing the popularity and availability of chocolate. Today, Switzerland leads the world in chocolate consumption, with the average person consuming over 19 pounds per year; the average American eats 9 to 10 pounds.

Honey

While scientists do not know with certainty how long humans have been using honey, there are Paleolithic rock drawings depicting bees and honeycombs from 40,000 years ago. Evidence of honey harvesting dates back 3,500 years, where scientists discovered pottery that was used to process or store beeswax in West Africa. In addition to being consumed as food, it’s believed that honey was used to make drinks.

Humans have utilized honey for health purposes for thousands of years. Because honey has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, it provides effective natural medicinal applications. Honey is an incredibly durable food. It has the ability to last indefinitely, unless exposed to moisture. It doesn’t spoil, thanks to its sugar and acidity levels, as well as the presence of (naturally occurring) hydrogen peroxide.

Pancakes

When the starch grains of 30,000-year-old grinding tools were analyzed, it led to the discovery that pancakes were made during the stone age. They were as flat then as they are now, but ingredients in ancient pancakes were different from the ones we make today. Flour was made from ground-up plants — including ferns and cattails, mixed with water and cooked on a hot rock. Although they probably had the consistency of bread rather than the spongy, fluffy pancakes of today, they would have lasted a long time without losing flavor. Later, the Romans and Greeks (who called them teganites) used wheat flour and oil in their pancake making. Interestingly, when Otzi the Iceman was discovered in 1991, the analysis of his stomach contents revealed traces of charcoal and grain, which led researchers to believe he consumed a version of pancakes. 

Popcorn

In order to get to the edible part of certain varieties of corn or maize, the kernels must be heated enough that the outer shell bursts, morphing into what we know of today as popcorn. Popcorn varieties of maize were being cultivated by indigenous peoples around 5,000 BCE. Although today the Midwest is known as the corn belt, it wasn’t until the mid-1850s when the use of the steel plow and other cultivation techniques began, that it earned the nickname. Today, the corn belt produces 40 percent of the world’s corn supply and 75 percent of the corn for the United States. The oldest ears of popcorn were found in New Mexico’s Bat Cave, and varied in size from that of a penny to two inches long. Although today we think of popcorn as a snack food, it was commonly eaten for breakfast as late as the early 1900s. These days, people enjoy all kinds of flavored popcorn, both sweet and savory. Check out these elevated popcorn recipes.

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