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Early Art, Language, and Cuisine

Sumerian palace cake variation

By Tim Hazell

A notable aspect of the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” (40,000–10,000 BC) was the appearance of art helping us to clarify what makes us human, part of what we emulate and envision that we as individuals can achieve. Reproductions of Upper Paleolithic art such as cave paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, Cosquer, and Pech Merle later influenced Expressionist painters such as Pablo Picasso.

Whether or not the earliest members of our species had a fully developed language is a matter of contention. Vocabulary with an ample range of expression and complex structure probably evolved out of a proto-linguistic phase that preceded it for a much longer period and could be linked to the advent of behavioral modernity at the end of the Middle Paleolithic or beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, roughly 50,000 years ago. This may place the development of intricate human speech at a recent point in our evolution.

Materials of no utilitarian purpose such as exotic crystals, shells, and bone became intrinsic to language, symbolic behavior, and tool manufacture. The ballet of flake production, during which stone implements were produced from large blanks removed from a mother boulder, involved sculpting according to concepts of aesthetic equipoise. Artisans’ skill and labor combined tool production and a striving for form, function, and design. Through their acts of craftsmanship, participants in the rites of tool assemblage were dramatically extending their abilities to visualize dynamic sculpted forms in three-dimensional space!

Food historians make educated guesses about ingredients and preparation techniques in 5,000-year-old kitchens by comparing fragmentary sources with modern ingredients and measurements. Very ancient records from the Sumerian city of Ur identify cakes “for the palace” as containing one sila of butter, one-third of a sila of white cheese, three sila of first-quality dates, and one-third of a sila of raisins. A sila equaled a little more than 3 cups.

This modern scaled-down version is best served in the pan, because the dried fruits may stick to the bottom. If you wish to un-mold it, line the bottom of the pan with baker’s parchment, or to be more authentic, grape leaves. Invert the cake onto a plate, and peel off the leaves.

Palace Cake from Ur


3 cups dates, finely chopped

1/3 cup raisins

2 teaspoons ground fennel or aniseed

1/3 cup cottage cheese

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted and at room temperature

2 eggs, beaten together, at room temperature

2/3 cup milk, at room temperature

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Combine dates, raisins, and spice, and scatter in a 10-inch cake pan. Press the cottage cheese through a strainer to break up the curds. Combine the cheese with melted butter, eggs, and milk and slowly stir into the flour, moistening thoroughly. Pour the batter over the dried fruits and bake for 45–55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean.


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