27 November 2022
A recent study found what could be the earliest known evidence of ancient cooking: the leftovers of a fish dinner from 780,000 years ago.
Cooking helped change our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution and gave us bigger brains. Later, cooking would become central to the eating celebrations that brought communities together.
The new study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, is based on material from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel — a watery place near an ancient lake.
Ancient objects from the area suggest it was home to a community of Homo erectus, a kind of early human that walked upright, explained study lead writer Irit Zohar of Tel Aviv University.
Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led the research digs. She said researchers found fish remains, especially teeth. Many of the teeth were from two different kinds of fish known as carp.
The remains were found near places where researchers also found signs of fire. Testing showed the teeth had been exposed to temperatures that were hot, but not super-hot. This suggests the fish were cooked low and slow, rather than being put right onto a fire, Zohar explained.
With all the evidence together, researchers concluded that these ancient human relatives had used fire for cooking some 780,000 years ago. That is much earlier than the next oldest evidence for cooking, about 170,000 years ago, which showed Stone Age humans ate cooked roots in South Africa.
Cooking might have started even earlier
The researchers — like many other experts — believe cooking started long before this, though physical evidence has been hard to find.
"I am sure that in the near future an earlier case will be reported," study writer Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said in an email.
That is in part because using fire for cooking was an important step in human evolution.
Cooking food makes it easier for the body to digest and get nutrients, explained David Braun of George Washington University. Braun was not involved with the study. When early humans figured out how to cook, they were able to get more energy, which they could use to fuel bigger brains.
Based on how human ancestors' brains and bodies developed, scientists estimate that cooking skills appeared nearly 2 million years ago.
"If we're out there eating raw items, it is very difficult to make it as a large-bodied primate," Braun said.
Those first cooked meals were far different from today's food. And in the many, many years in between, humans started not just eating for fuel, but for community.
Cooking food to build community
In a 2010 study, led by Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, researchers described the earliest evidence of a feast. The feast was a specially prepared meal that brought people together for an event 12,000 years ago in a cave in Israel.
The cave, which served as a burial place, included the remains of one special woman who seemed to be a religious leader for her community, Munro said.
This "first feast" came at an important turning point in human history, right as hunter-gatherers were starting to settle into more permanent living situations, Munro said. Gathering for special meals may have been a way to build community and reduce tensions now that people lived closer to each other, she said.
Munro said she believes ancient feasts served a lot of the same social uses that modern gatherings serve: People exchange information, make connections, or try to improve their position.
"This is something that's just quintessentially human," Munro said. "And to see the first evidence of it is exciting."
I'm John Russell.
Maddie Burakoff wrote this story for The Associated Press. John Russell adapted the story for Learning English.
Words in This Story
evolution – n. the process by which changes in plants and animals happen over time
expose -- v. to cause (someone) to experience something or to be influenced or affected by something
digest -- v. to change (food that you have eaten) by a biological process into simpler forms that can be used by the body
raw – adj. not cooked
primate – n. any member of the group of animals that includes human beings, apes, and monkeys
quintessentially – adv. the perfect example of something