A new discovery reveals early humans cooked food using controlled heat at least 780,000 years ago. The findings suggest that prehistoric humans were able to make fires and understood the benefits of cooking food, which represents a pivotal step in the Neolithic revolution.
The science and other stuff to know
Cooking food allows us to spend less time chewing and digesting hard, raw food. It also frees up energy to enable larger brain growth, allowing humans to become intelligent species.
Until now, the earliest evidence of using fire to cook food dated to around 170,000 years ago. However, a new study, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, pushes this date back to 780,000 years ago.
A team of researchers from eight institutions analyzed the remains of a large fish found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, an archaeological site in Israel. By examining the teeth enamel, they discovered the fish had been exposed to low temperatures suitable for cooking, the study reported.
“In this study, we used geochemical methods to identify changes in the size of the tooth enamel crystals, as a result of exposure to different cooking temperatures,” Jens Najorka from the Natural History Museum in London said in a press release. “When they are burnt by fire, it is easy to identify the dramatic change in the size of the enamel crystals, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius. The experiments we conducted…allowed us to identify the changes caused by cooking at low temperatures.”
“We do not know exactly how the fish were cooked but given the lack of evidence of exposure to high temperatures, it is clear that they were not cooked directly in fire, and were not thrown into a fire as waste or as material for burning,” Najorka added.
Cooking food represents a pivotal step in the Neolithic revolution, the world’s first verifiable revolution in agriculture. It also forms an important foundation for understanding the relationship between man, climate, environment, and migration when reconstructing the history of early humans.
“This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” the study authors wrote. “Further, by studying the fish remains… we were able to reconstruct, for the first time, the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake and to show that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time. These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that reached up to 2 meters in length.”
“The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques,” the authors added. “These new findings demonstrate not only the importance of freshwater habitats and the fish they contained for the sustenance of prehistoric man, but also illustrate prehistoric humans’ ability to control fire to cook food, and their understanding of the benefits of cooking fish before eating it.”
Fish are nutritious and easier to digest when cooked, says Irit Zohar, one of the researchers involved in the study. And the fact that these populations were cooking their fish provides evidence of their advanced cognitive abilities.
“If they already knew how to control fire, then it’s just logical that they would use it for cooking,” she says.
The team didn’t find any human remains at the site. However, they unearthed stone tools that suggest Homo erectus once lived there. This study has unearthed incredibly important findings, as two of the really big questions that researchers into human origins have long sought answers for are when and where deliberately set and controlled fire first appeared, and when we began to cook our food.
Researchers claim it’s possible that “cooking wasn’t limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants.” Additional research could push the numbers in this study even further back in time, as humans have built their societies around fires.