Europeans had a taste for spicy food at least 6,000 years ago, it seems.
Researchers found evidence for garlic mustard in the residues left on ancient pottery shards discovered in what is now Denmark and Germany.
The spice was found alongside fat residues from meat and fish.
Writing in the journal Plos One, the scientists make the case that garlic mustard contains little nutritional value and therefore must have been used to flavour the foods.
“This is the earliest evidence, as far as I know, of spice use in this region in the Western Baltic; something that has basically no nutritional value, but has this value in a taste sense,” said Dr Hayley Saul, who led the study from the University of York, UK.
The researchers looked at charred deposits found on the inside of pottery shards that had been dated to between 5,800 and 6,150 years ago.
These deposits contained microscopic traces of plant-based silica, known as phytoliths, which can be used to identify the plants from which they came.
It was these phytoliths that provided the evidence of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the carbonised scrapings.
The team found more phytoliths from residues taken from the inside of pots than from the outside, which they say shows that these were the direct result of culinary practice