Earliest evidence of humans cooking with fire dates back 780,000 years
Scientists have discovered the earliest evidence of humans cooking food through the controlled use of fire, dating to almost 800,000 years ago. An archeological site in Israel contains fish remains that, on closer examination, show clear signs of having been cooked.
The discovery was made at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archeological site in Israel, where a team of researchers from eight institutions found large amounts of fish teeth. The original owners of these teeth were huge carp that can grow up to 2 m (6.6 ft) long, which would have lived in the nearby Hula Lake.
The team studied pharyngeal teeth, which fish use to grind up hard materials like shells of their food. When these teeth are exposed to high heat, the crystals in the tooth enamel expand, so analyzing their size and structure can reveal much about the temperatures they endured.
This analysis showed that the teeth had been exposed to a relatively low heat, of under 500 °C (932 °F). This, the team says, is a clear indication the fish had been deliberately cooked, with some kind of separation from the bare flames themselves. If the fish had been thrown directly into the fire as waste or fuel, or had been caught in a natural fire, they would have shown signs of much higher temperatures.
“The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques,” said Dr. Irit Zohar and Dr. Marion Prévost, researchers on the study. “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 oldest teeth at the site were dated to around 780,000 years ago, making them the oldest direct evidence so far of controlled use of fire for cooking food. That’s a huge leap over the previous record, which only dates back 170,000 years. But of course it’s likely that ancient humans began the practice even earlier – after all, there’s evidence that hominins like Homo Erectus had learnt to control fire over a million years ago. This would have been for warmth and light initially before they realized its potential for cooking, tool-making and other uses.
The research was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.