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Humans were using fire to cook food 780,000 years ago

The question of when early humans began using fire to cook food has been the subject of heated scientific debate for over a century. Until recently, the earliest evidence of cooking dates to approximately 170,000 years ago. However, a close analysis of the remains of a carp-like fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archaeological site in Israel provides proof that the fish were cooked roughly 780,000 years ago, thus predating the available data by over 600,000 years ago.

“This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability. Furthermore, by studying the fish remains found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqob we were able to reconstruct, for the first time, the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake and to show that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time. These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that reached up to two meters in length,” reported study co-authors Dr. Irit Zohar, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Marian Prevost, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU). 

“The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques. 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.”

By studying the structure of pharyngeal teeth belonging to the fish fossils, the scientists were able to prove that the fish caught at the ancient Hula Lake – adjacent to the archeological site – were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire. The fact that fish cooking is evident over such a long period of settlement at the site indicates a continuous tradition of cooking food, and adds evidence to the high cognitive capacities of the Acheulian hunter-gatherers who were active in that region. 

“These groups were deeply familiar with their environment and the various resources it offered them. Further, it shows they had extensive knowledge of the life cycles of different plant and animal species. Gaining the skill required to cook food marks a significant evolutionary advance, as it provided an additional means for making optimal use of available food resources. It is even possible that cooking was not limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants,” added HU professor Naama Goren-Inbar, the director of the excavation site. 

According to the scientists, the transition from eating raw food to eating cooked food had major implications for human development and behavior. Since eating cooked food reduces the bodily energy required to break down and digest food, it allows other physical systems to develop, and leads to changes in the human jaw and skull.

Such changes freed humans from the daily, intensive work of searching for and digesting raw food, providing them sufficient free time to develop new behavioral and social systems. Thus, eating fish can be considered a major milestone in human cognitive evolution, providing a central catalyst for the development of the modern human brain.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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