Early human ancestors, who lived 780,000 years ago, liked their fish well done, Israeli researchers have revealed in what they believe was the earliest evidence fire was used for cooking.
Exactly when our ancestors began cooking is a matter of debate among archaeologists, as it is difficult to prove that an ancient fireplace was used to prepare food rather than just heat it.
But the birth of the art of cooking marks an important turning point in human history, as it is believed that by making food easier to chew and digest, it made a major contribution to our eventual expansion around the world.
According to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the first “definitive evidence” for cooking came from Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens 170,000 years ago.
The study, which pushes that date back more than 600,000 years, is the result of 16 years of work by its first author Irit Zohar, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.
During that time she has cataloged thousands of fish remains found at a site called Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in northern Israel.
The site near the banks of the Jordan River was once home to a lake where a trove of ancient fish fossils helped the research team pinpoint when the first chefs became inventive in the kitchen.
“It was like putting on a jigsaw puzzle, with more and more information, until we could write a story about human evolution,” Zohar told AFP.
The first clue came in an area that contained “almost no bones” but lots of teeth, she said.
This could indicate cooking, as fish bones soften and crumble at temperatures below 500 °C (930 °F), but their teeth remain.
In the same area, a colleague of Zohar found burnt flints and other evidence that it had previously been used as a hearth.
And most of the teeth belonged to just two particularly large species of carp, suggesting they were chosen for their “juicy” meat, the study found. Some of the carp were over two meters long.
The “decisive” evidence came from examining tooth enamel, Zohar said.
The researchers used a technique called X-ray powder diffraction at the Natural History Museum in London to find out how heating changes the structure of the crystals that make up tooth enamel.
Comparing the results with other fish fossils, they found that the teeth from the key area of the lake had been exposed to a temperature of between 200 and 500 °C (400-930 F). Just the right thing for well-cooked fish.
Whether our progenitors baked, grilled, poached, or sautéed their fish is unknown, although the study suggests they may have used some type of earth oven.
It is believed that Homo erectus first mastered fire around 1.7 million years ago. But “just because you can control the fire for warming doesn’t mean you can control it for cooking — they could have eaten the fish next to the fire,” Zohar said.
Then human ancestors could have thrown the bones into the fire, said Anaïs Marrast, an archaeozoologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History who was not involved in the study.
“The whole question about exposure to fire is whether it’s to get rid of leftovers or a desire to cook,” she said.