Scientists have unearthed at an archaeological site in Israel the earliest known evidence of cooking in the history of the human revolution dating back 780,000 years.
The evidence from a detailed study of fish teeth indicates that a fundamental shift in the eating habits of our early human ancestors occurred, suggesting that prehistoric humans were able to make fires to cook their meals
Archaeologists have long debated about the exact time period when early humans started cooking. This was largely due to the difficulty of proving whether an ancient fireplace was used to prepare food or was merely for warmth instead.
According to Dr. Irit Zohar, author of the study and a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, the findings at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site situated on the edge of the ancient lake Hula revealed that some of our early ancestors, most likely Homo Erectus, were able to cook fish.
A report published on Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution indicated that theories about the first “definitive evidence” of cooking was by Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens had previously established the date as 170,000 years ago.
Yet the 16 years of work presented by Dr. Zohar, who is also a curator of the Beit Margolin Biological Collections at Oranim Academic College, pushes that date back by more than 600,000 years.
Evidence of cooked fish and fire in Israel
The findings of the report indicating a shift by humans in preparing their meals meant less energy and intensive work when searching for and digesting fresh, raw food. It furthermore points to the freeing up of more time which helped them develop new social and behavioral systems.
Dr. Bethan Linscott, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford said, “Evidence for the controlled use of fire in the (early Stone Age) … is ephemeral at best, and as such, the evidence of anthropogenically (because of human activity) accumulated and cooked fish remains described here will undoubtedly have a wide impact on the research community.”
She further noted that diet has had a significant impact on the evolution of our species as well as suggested that the consumption of meat contributed to the increase in the relative brain size of our early Homo ancestors.
Although no human remains were found at the site, stone tools discovered there matched those at Homo erectus sites across Africa, according to Dr. Zohar. The lake would have been shallow, making it difficult to catch large fish, he also detailed.
While he was not involved in the study John McNabb, a professor at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton, also put forth the idea that the cumulative weight of the evidence put forward suggested the remains dug up was of cooked fish.
Experiment on tooth enamel justified new theory
Researchers examined changes in the size of the tooth enamel crystals of the fish samples as the respond differently to changes in temperature in order to determine whether the inhabitants of the site actually grilled or baked their fish there rather than simply discarding in the fire their remains.
To that end, Zohar and collaborator Dr. Jens Najorka, an X-ray lab manager at the Natural History Museum in London, analyzed 56 teeth belonging to prehistoric and freshwater fish.
This allowed them to spot the changes caused by cooking at low versus high temperatures. What their experiment suggested in the end was that the fish was cooked at temperatures between 392 and 932 degrees Fahrenheit or 200 and 500 degrees Celsius.
There were very few fish bones however as, unlike teeth, soften under high temperatures and easily decay.
Dr. Najorka said, “We do not know exactly how the fish was 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.”
The team also determined that fish not just a seasonal treat or a last resort when other sources of food were scarcer but a regular part of their diet. This they did by looking at the geochemical composition of oxygen and carbon isotopes in the enamel of the teeth, which allowed them to pinpoint the season in which the fish had died.
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