The oldest evidence of controlled use of fire to cook food dates back to around 1.8 million years ago and was found in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa. The evidence, in the form of ash and burned bones, suggests that early humans used fire to cook meat and other foods. This discovery has significant implications for the evolution of human diet and social behavior.
According to researchers, the remains of a massive carp fish date back to 780,000 years ago, predating the available data by approximately 600,000 years. Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), Tel Aviv University (TAU), and Bar-Ilan University (BIU) collaborated with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz to make a remarkable scientific discovery. A close examination of the remains of a carp-like fish discovered at Israel’s Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archaeological site reveals that the fish was cooked approximately 780,000 years ago.
Cooking is defined as the ability to process food by controlling the temperature at which it is heated, and it encompasses a wide variety of techniques. Until now, the earliest evidence of cooking dates back about 170,000 years. For more than a century, scientists have debated when early man first used fire to cook food. These findings, which were published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, shed new light on the subject.
Dr. Irit Zohar, a researcher at TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and curator of the Beit Margolin Biological Collections at Oranim Academic College, led the study, as did HU Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, the excavation site’s director.
This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability. These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that could grow to be 2 meters long. The abundance of fish remains discovered at the site attests to their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed unique cooking techniques.Drs. Zohar
“This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” say Drs. Zohar and Prevost. Furthermore, by studying the fish remains discovered at Gesher Benot Ya’aqob, we were able to reconstruct the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake for the first time and demonstrate that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time. These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that could grow to be 2 meters long. The abundance of fish remains discovered at the site attests to their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed unique cooking techniques. 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 in order to cook food, and their understanding the benefits of cooking fish before eating it.”
The researchers focused on pharyngeal teeth (used to grind up hard food such as shells) from carp fish. These teeth were discovered in large quantities at the site’s various archaeological strata. The researchers were able to prove that the fish caught at the ancient Hula Lake, adjacent to the site, were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire by studying the structure of the crystals that form the teeth enamel (whose size increases with exposure to heat).
Until now, evidence of the use of fire for cooking had been limited to sites that came into use much later than the GBY site – by some 600,000 years, and ones most are associated with the emergence of our own species, homo sapiens.
“The fact that the cooking of fish is evident over such a long and unbroken period of settlement at the site indicates a continuous tradition of cooking food,” Prof. Goren-Inbar added. This is the latest in a long line of discoveries relating to the advanced cognitive abilities of Acheulian hunter-gatherers who lived in the ancient Hula Valley region. These groups were intimately acquainted with their surroundings and the various resources they provided. Furthermore, it demonstrates that they were well-versed in the life cycles of various plant and animal species. Gaining the ability to cook food represents a significant evolutionary advance because it provided an additional means of making the best use of available food resources. It is even possible that cooking was not limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants.”
According to Prof. Hershkovitz and Dr. Zohar, the transition from raw to cooked food had dramatic implications for human development and behavior. Cooked food requires less bodily energy to break down and digest, allowing other physical systems to develop. It also causes structural changes in the human jaw and skull. This shift liberated humans from the daily, laborious task of searching for and digesting raw food, giving them more time to develop new social and behavioral systems. Some scientists consider eating fish to be a watershed moment in human cognitive evolution, serving as a central catalyst for brain development. They claim that eating fish is what evolved us into humans.
The researchers believe that the location of freshwater areas, some of which have long since dried up and turned into arid deserts, determined the route of early man’s migration from Africa to the Levant and beyond. These habitats not only provided drinking water and attracted animals to the area, but catching fish in shallow water is a relatively simple and safe task with a high nutritional reward.
According to the researchers, the first step on prehistoric humans’ route out of Africa was to exploit fish in freshwater habitats. Cooking fish, as discovered in this study, represented a real revolution in the Acheulian diet and is an important foundation for understanding the relationship between man, the environment, climate, and migration when attempting to reconstruct the history of early humans.
It should be noted that evidence of the use of fire at the site — the oldest such evidence in Eurasia — was identified first by BIU’s Prof. Nira Alperson-Afil. “The use of fire is a behavior that characterizes the entire continuum of settlement at the site,” she explained. “This affected the spatial organization of the site and the activity conducted there, which revolved around fireplaces.” Alperson-Afil’s research of fire at the site was revolutionary for its time and showed that the use of fire began hundreds of thousands of years before previously thought.
According to Goren-Inbar of HU, the GBY archaeological site documents a tens of thousands of years of repeated settlement by groups of hunter-gatherers on the shores of the ancient Hula Lake. “These groups took advantage of the ancient Hula Valley’s rich array of resources and left behind a long settlement continuum with over 20 settlement strata,” Goren-Inbar explained. The excavations at the site have revealed the material culture of these ancient hominins, including flint, basalt, and limestone tools, as well as their food sources, which were characterized by a rich diversity of plant species from the lake and its shores (including fruit, nuts, and seeds) and many species of land mammals, both medium-sized and large.
“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,” explained Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London. It is easy to identify the dramatic change in the size of the enamel crystals when they are burned by fire, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures ranging from 200 to 500 degrees Celsius. The experiments I conducted with Dr. Zohar enabled us to identify the changes caused by low-temperature cooking. 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.”
Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute and Prof. Thomas Tütken of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz also contributed to the study by analyzing the oxygen and carbon isotope composition in the enamel of the fishes’ teeth. “This isotope study was a real breakthrough because it allowed us to reconstruct the hydrological conditions in this ancient lake throughout the seasons, allowing us to conclude that the fish were not a seasonal economic resource, but were caught and eaten all year. As a result, fish provided a consistent source of nutrition, reducing the need for seasonal migration.”