Israeli researchers have revealed that the ancestors of early humans who lived 780,000 years ago loved their fish well, in what they say is the first evidence of fire being used for cooking.
Exactly when our ancestors started cooking has been a matter of debate among archaeologists because it is difficult to prove that an ancient fireplace was used to prepare food, and not just for warmth.
But the birth of the culinary arts marks an important turning point in human history because by making it easier to chew and digest food, it is believed to have contributed significantly to our eventual expansion across the globe.
Previously, the first “conclusive evidence” of cooking was by Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens 170,000 years ago, according to a study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday.
The study, which pushes this history 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 cataloged thousands of fish remains that were found at a site called Gesher Benot Yaakov in northern Israel.
The site near the banks of the Jordan River was once home to a lake, where a treasure trove of ancient fish fossils helped the research team investigate exactly when the first chefs began getting creative in the kitchen.
“It was like facing a puzzle, with more and more information so we can make a story about human evolution,” Zohar told AFP.
The first clue, she said, came in an area with “almost no fish bones” but plenty of teeth.
This may indicate cooking because fish bones soften and decompose at temperatures below 500°C (930°F) but their teeth remain.
In the same area, a colleague of the Zohar found burnt stone blocks and other evidence that it had previously been used as a fireplace.
Most of the teeth belonged to only two large species of carp, the study said, indicating that they were chosen for their “succulent” meat. Some carp were more than 2 meters (6.5 feet) long.
Zohar said the “conclusive” evidence came from the study of tooth enamel.
The researchers used a technique called powder X-ray diffraction at the Natural History Museum in London to see how heating changes the structure of the crystals that make up the enamel.
Comparing the results with fossils of other fish, they found that the teeth from the main area of the lake were exposed to temperatures ranging from 200-500 degrees Celsius (400-930 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the right range for well-cooked fish.
Whether our ancestors were baked, grilled, boiled or fried, their fish is still unknown, although the study indicated that they may have used some kind of floor oven.
Homo erectus is believed to have first mastered fire about 1.7 million years ago.
“Just because you can control the fire to warm, it doesn’t mean you control it to cook – they may have eaten fish by the fire,” said the Zohar.
Anis Marst, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in France who was not involved in the study, said human ancestors may have thrown the bones into the fire.
“The whole question about exposure to fire is whether it’s about getting rid of leftovers or wanting to cook,” she said.