The Earliest Evidence of Cooking Food
Leading Israeli universities collaborate internationally to unearth the earliest proof of the controlled use of fire to cook meals.
A startling scientific finding has been made after thorough examination of the remains of a fish resembling a carp discovered at the Israeli archaeological site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov which reveals that the fish were cooked there about 780,000 years ago. For more than a century, scientists have debated the issue of when early humans first used fire to cook food. The earliest culinary evidence discovered up till now is from roughly 170,000 years ago.
This new discovery, which was reported in Nature Ecology and Evolution, provide new insight on the subject. This study reveals the critical role that fish played in prehistoric humans' food and economic security. The scientists were also able to rebuild the fish population of the old Hula Lake for the first time by analyzing the fish bones discovered at Gesher Benot Ya'aqob and demonstrating that the lake once had fish species that eventually went extinct. These species included huge barbs, which could grow up to 2 meters in length and resembled carp.
The abundance of fish remains discovered at the site demonstrates that early humans frequently consumed fish and that they also had unique cooking methods. These new discoveries show the value of freshwater ecosystems and the fish they held for the nutrition of prehistoric humans, as well as the ability of these early humans to regulate fire to prepare food and their awareness of the advantages of cooking fish before consuming it.
The pharyngeal teeth of fish from the carp family were the main subject of the investigation. Numerous instances of these teeth were discovered in the site's various archaeological strata. The scientists were able to demonstrate that the fish they caught at the ancient Hula Lake, nearby, were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire by examining the structure of the crystals that make up teeth enamel (whose size increases when exposed to heat). Up until now, there has only been evidence of the use of fire for cooking at sites that are around 600,000 years older than the GBY site and are mostly linked to the development of our own species.
The presence of cooking fish at the site over such a lengthy and uninterrupted period of occupancy suggests a continuing history of food preparation. The Acheulian hunter-gatherers who lived in the ancient Hula Valley region were highly intelligent, according to a number of finds. These communities had a thorough understanding of their surroundings and the numerous resources it provided.
Additionally, it demonstrates their in-depth familiarity with the various plant and animal species' life cycles. The ability to cook food represents a significant evolutionary development since it added a tool for utilizing the food resources at hand. Even so, cooking might not have been restricted to fish.
The authors point out that the switch from raw to cooked food has significant effects on human behavior and development. Eating prepared meal uses less energy to digest and break down the food, enabling other bodily functions to advance. The human jaw and skull structure are also altered as a result. Humans no longer had to spend their days searching for and digesting raw food, which gave them more time to create novel social and behavioral systems. According to some scientists, eating fish served as a key stimulus for the human brain's growth, marking a turning point in the quantum leap in human cognitive evolution. They contend that eating fish is what gave rise to the human race. Omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine, and other nutrients found in fish meat are well known to have a significant role in brain development even today.
The research team holds that the migration path of early man from Africa to the Levant and beyond was governed by the presence of freshwater places, some of which were in regions that have long since dried up and turned into arid deserts. In addition to providing drinking water and luring animals to the area, these habitats also made fishing in shallow water a reasonably easy and safe task with a very high nutritional payoff. According to the research team, the initial step on the migration of prehistoric humans out of Africa was to utilize fish in freshwater settings. Fish consumption by early man peaked around 2 million years ago, but cooking it marked a significant change in the Acheulian diet and is a crucial building block for understanding how early humans interacted with their environment, climate, and migration.
It should be emphasized that one of the scientists found evidence of the usage of fire at the site, the earliest such evidence in Eurasia. The use of fire is a behavior that was prevalent during the whole period of settlement at the site. This behavior had an impact on how the site was laid out spatially and how people interacted with it, which centered around fireplaces.
On the shores of the long-gone Hula Lake, groups of hunter-gatherers repeatedly settled over a period of tens of thousands of years, as shown by the archaeological site of GBY. Utilizing the abundant resources that the historic Hula Valley offered, these tribes left behind a lengthy settlement continuum with more than 20 settlement layers. In addition to their food sources, which included a wide variety of plant species from the lake and its shores (including fruit, nuts, and seeds), as well as numerous species of medium-sized and large land mammals, the excavations at the site have revealed the material culture of these prehistoric hominins, which includes flint, basalt, and limestone tools.
Zohar, I., Alperson-Afil, N., Goren-Inbar, N. et al. Evidence for the cooking of fish 780,000 years ago at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel. Nat Ecol Evol (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01910-z