The Origins and History of Soup
Stone Age people created soup before they had a pot to cook it in, a
bowl to serve it in, or a gourd to drink it from.
In fact, it’s not completely clear who ﬁrst stumbled onto the concept
of soup–anthropologists disagree, depending on their read of existing
artifacts. Some say it was one of the Homo sapiens gang, sometime after
80,000 b.c.e.–either the Neanderthals or the Cro-Magnons who ultimately
did those poor Neanderthals in. Others argue for a later
generation–Neolithic man, around 10,000 b.c.e.
I kind of like the Neanderthal theory. It was aparticularly tough and
dangerous world back then. These hunter-gatherers were stuck in the
last blast of an Ice Age that killed off much of their food and many
species. It was every man for himself as the Neanderthals ran fearfully
from–and ran hungrily after–woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers,
wolves, and other hominids. And yet elderly Neanderthal skeletons have
been found in France with teeth worn down below gum level–and deeply
crippled skeletons have been found, too. This means that some older or
sickly prehistoric men had been kept alive only through the compassion
of their communities and the brilliance of someone who could create hot
and soupy food alternatives to incredibly cold indigestible plants and
I try to put myself under the toque of that Stone Age Julia Child. I
imagine him or her using bark to dip and carry water . . .
putting food in the water and noticing it soften or swell . . . marking
how plants and berries, meat and marrow chunks would infuse the water
with color and ﬂavor. I imagine him or her getting the idea of warming
the broth from the warm mother’s milk that kept little Neanderthal
Soup! It’s an unbelievable achievement–a matter of thought overreaching
what was technologically possible at the time. In the words of
anthropologist Sally McBrearty: “The earliest Homo sapiens probably had
the cognitive capability to invent Sputnik . . . but didn’t yet have
the history of invention or a need for those things.” But soup? Yes, he
needed soup. He needed soup, so he imagined soup. He imagined soup, so
he brought it into being, despite his lack of pots to cook it in.
In fact, soup turned out to be a transforming concept that changed
early man’s relationship to nature, increased his life choices, and
created completely new needs and desires. One eon he’s a vegetarian in
the garden of Eden, the next he’s scavenging or hunting raw ﬂesh and
sucking bone marrow . . . then, almost suddenly, he’s ﬁgured out an
unbelievably complex process with tools to produce a hot meal. It’s a
gastronomic miracle, and it’s art: multiple colors, multiple textures,
multiple ﬂavors–something created by man that had never existed before
in the history of the world.
But how on earth could early man in 10,000 b.c.e., at the latest, have
boiled things . . . without the pottery that he ﬁnally created in 6,000
b.c.e. and the cauldrons that followed in 3,600 b.c.e.?
How Can You Make Soup Without Pots?
I propose two theories.
First, prehistoric man might have boiled animals in their skins. He
could have ﬂayed his prey, suspending the skin on forked sticks, ﬁlling
the bag with water and food, and lighting a ﬁre underneath. The skin
would not catch ﬁre because it would be cooked by the boiling water on
the inside (but don’t try this trick at home). In fact, this technique
has been used by many cultures in recorded history, from Scythians in
ﬁfth century b.c.e. to Irish and Scots in the sixteenth century.
Second, our ancestors might have used the “hot stone” method. First you
dig a hole or ﬁnd one, and ﬁll it with water. Then you build a ﬁre
close by and heat stones in it. Then, one by one, and
v-e-r-y carefully, you transfer the stones to the water until it boils.
And it will. Stones can be heated to a temperature of 1,300 degrees
Fahrenheit in a well-laid hearth. How do I know that? Because in 1954,
archeologist Michael J. O’Kelly proved it in experiments with his
students at primeval Irish sites: “They used the hearths to heat
stones, used a dampened wooden shovel to dump them in the water,
brought the water to a boil, and simmered a 10-pound leg of mutton for
3 hours 40 minutes by adding stones every few minutes. . . . Then they
ate the results: ‘excellently cooked and most tasty.’ ”*
What Went into the Earliest Soups?
After those ﬁrst catch-as-catch-can soups of wild plants and animals,
and after vast ﬁelds of grain sprang up in Europe and Asia, it turned
out to be grains and beans–early man’s ﬁrst agricultural triumphs in
Neolithic times–that went into soup. By 7000 b.c.e., Emmer wheat had
been domesticated in Turkey, and barley, millet, and beans in Greece.
By 5000 b.c.e., rice was being cultivated in China. These were the
stuff of early soups. And, of course, these remain our most revered
modern comfort foods. Read on.
Grains cooked in broth continue to be lovingly prepared in most
cultures: porridges and gruels from ground wheat; couscous soups and
farina soups; barley soups and tsampas; oatmeal soups and rice congee.
Imagine the astonished look on ancient man’s face when he ﬁrst
witnessed the miracle of chemistry–when heating caused these cereal
grains to release starch granules into the broth and make it thick.
Bean/pea soup was in vogue long before Esau sold his birthright for it
(that biblical “mess of pottage” was lentil soup), and it is an
established part of every cuisine in the world without exception–every
one! From feijoada in Brazil, to huku ne dovi in Zimbabwe, to misoshiru
in Japan, and everything in between.
And then there’s the ancient variation of ground wheat made into a
bread that turns so hard without today’s modern preservatives that it
can be made edible again only by pouring boiling broth over it. I know
this bread from years I spent living in Morocco: that marvelous freshly
baked kisra–a thick Frisbee of chewy bread–would turn to stone in 24
hours. This is called “sop,” when dunked in hot liquid, the origin of
our words soup, soupe, sup, sopa, soppe, zuppe, shorba, çorbasi. This
combination is the basis of Portuguese sopa secos and asordas; Arabic
shorbas; Spanish garlic soup; French panades, onion soup, and garbure;
Italian aquacotta; Danish ollebrod, Estonian leivasupp, and French
l’aïgo boulido. You’ll ﬁnd an Egyptian fatta soup on page 248 whose
very name means to break crisped pita bread into food.
So there you have it. This part of our everyday cuisine, this soup that
we take so much for granted, began life as a miracle of intellection,
kept humankind alive through extremes of privation over the ages, and
now serves to bind our common humanity, nurse our ills, and mark life’s
When I ponder soup, I think of ancient Tollund Man, dug out of a Danish
peat bog in the 1950s and perfectly preserved. He’d been ritually
sacriﬁced to the gods–strangled–but ﬁrst given a ﬁne last meal, still
intact in his stomach. What was it? You know what it was: it was soup.
A thick soup of grain and weed seeds ground in a hand mill and boiled.
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