Pre-historical diet

 |Dec 2, 2016
Mokhtar Saidin and archaeological findings from Lenggong Valley, Perak.
Mokhtar Saidin and archaeological findings from Lenggong Valley, Perak.

Malaysia has always been known for her rich food and culinary heritage.

This country has been a melting pot of cultures for centuries, and this has yielded some of the most unique food that appeal to a wide array of taste buds in the world.

But where did we start?

What were some of the earliest forms of food, culinary culture and ancient recipes detected in archaeological sites around the country?

With focus on archaeological findings at the Lenggong Valley and its surroundings, it seems like our culinary past is unsurprisingly dependent on our natural resources – the jungles, rivers and seas around us.

A paper by Goh Hsiao Mei and Prof Mokhtar Saidin published in the Malaysian Archaeological Journal dissects the archaeological findings and remains at Gua Gunung Runtuh (where the remains of Perak Man was discovered).

This cave had been inhabited by humans 13,000 year ago till about 1,000 years ago.

The remains of 18 types of mammals and four types of reptiles, believed to be part of the prehistoric diet of humans in this area were indicated in the paper titled – Prehistoric Diet: Studies and Evidence in Lenggong Valley.

The findings show that prehistoric men and women in this area feasted on terrapin, tortoise, snakes, iguanas, monkeys, gibbons and macaque.

They also consumed bigger animals like bears and tigers.

“Buried with the Perak Man were an array of food supplies like wild boar, iguana, monkey, gibbon, deer, mouse-deer, rat, terrapin and panther,” the paper stated.

All these are indicative of the diet of prehistoric man in the Malay Peninsula 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, it added.

Some of the animals above are probably protected species or off the menu now, but locals here still enjoy curried or stir fried deer, wild boar and iguana which are considered exotic bush meat nowadays.

“You will be surprised that some of the food that ancient humans feasted on in this site like the siput sedut (Brotia costula and the Brotia Spinosa shellfish species), are still a part of the culinary heritage of the people in this area,” said Mokhtar.

“Shells of the siput sedut can be found in cave dwellings at archaeological sites in the Lengong Valley, indicating that this was a food source.”

In his paper titled – Prehistoric Utilisation of Shells in the Lenggong Valley, Perak, Malaysia, Mokhtar said shellfish consumption is documented as a major item of prehistoric diet in the Lenggong Valley.

After consumption, the shells were used to make jewellery, he said adding that these were also found at ancient burial sites.

Fast forward today, the siput sedut is a favourite dish in restaurants at towns in Perak like Setiawan, Lumut and Teluk Intan.

The presentation of siput sedut as a dish has of course evolved with time and culinary advancements.

The locals serve up this dish as soups or stir-fries with soya sauce, thai sauces, chillies and herbs.

Prehistoric men did not have the luxury of seasoning but they did have fire, and charring on the surfaces of the shells indicates that these were cooked or roasted – making it easier to extract the flesh.

Analysis on the shell remains at Gua Kajang, Gua Ngaum and Gua Harimau clearly show consistent breakage patterns in which most of the shells have the apices cut off most likely with flake or pebble tools.

This makes it easier to extract the flesh of the shell.

Nowadays, there is the benefit of using a toothpick to pick out the flesh of the shellfish from the shell, but I’m sure this is just an evolved form of twigs and stems used by ancient men.

Excavations at Gua Gunung Runtuh, Gua Kajang, Gua Ngaum and Gua Harimau show that the practice of shellfish consumption extends from the Late Pleistocene period into the Holocene.

This is supported by radiocarbon dating, Mokhtar said.

Analysis on shell remains retrieved from the site show that these were freshwater shells retrieved from streams near the archeological site.

The important species represented are the Brotia costula and the Brotia Spinosa.

The popularity of shellfish in the area is related to the fact that it was available in abundance throughout the year.

The large quantity of shells and the density of shell deposits suggest that shell gathering was a regular subsistence activity and an important contribution to the diet, rather than a famine food of last resort, said Mokhtar.

More studies are being conducted at archaeological sites in other parts of the country like Lembah Bujang and Sungai Batu to determine the type of diet the people in these civilisations depended on.

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Maria Angela is a Malaysia Outlook contributor with about 15 years of experience as a journalist. She developed her passion for arts, culture, history and heritage while on the local council beat when she discovered not much emphasis was placed on preserving our past for the benefit of future generations.