Early human ancestors who lived 780,000 years ago loved well-done fish, Israeli researchers have revealed.
Exactly when our ancestors started cooking has been a point of controversy among archaeologists, as it is difficult to prove that an ancient fireplace was used to prepare food, not just to heat it.
But the birth of the culinary arts marks a major turning point in human history because, by making food easier to chew and digest, it is believed to have contributed greatly to our eventual expansion around the world.
Previously, the first “definitive evidence” of cooking by Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens was 170,000 years ago, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
The study, which pushes that date back more than 600,000 years, is the result of 16 years of work by the first author, Irit Zohar, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.
During that time, she has cataloged thousands of fish remains found at a site called Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in northern Israel.
The location near the banks of the Jordan River was once home to a lake, where a treasure trove of ancient fish fossils helped the team of researchers investigate when the first chefs started getting inventive in the kitchen.
“It was like we were faced with a puzzle, with more and more information until we could make a story about human evolution,” Zohar told AFP.
The first clue came in an area that had “almost no fish bones” but lots of teeth, she said.
This could indicate cooking because fish bones soften and decompose at temperatures below 500C (930F), but their teeth remain.
In the same area, a colleague of Zohar found burnt flints and other evidence that it had previously been used as a fireplace.
And most of the teeth belonged to just two particularly large carp species, suggesting they were selected for their “juicy” meat, the study said. Some carp were over two meters long.
The “decisive” evidence came from studying the enamel of the teeth, Zohar said.
The researchers used a technique called X-ray powder diffraction at London’s Natural History Museum to find out how heating changes the structure of the crystals that make up the enamel.
Comparing the results with other fish fossils, they found that the teeth from the main part of the lake were exposed to temperatures between 200-500C (400-930F). That’s just the right range for well-cooked fish.
Whether our ancestors baked, grilled, poached or sautéed their fish remains unknown, though the study suggested they may have used some kind of earth oven.
Fire is thought to have been first mastered by Homo erectus some 1.7 million years ago. But “just because you can control fire to heat up doesn’t mean you can control it to cook — they could have eaten the fish next to the fire,” Zohar said.
Then human ancestors may have thrown the bones into the fire, said Anaïs Marrast, an archaeozoologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the study.
“The whole question about fire exposure is whether it’s the removal of leftovers or a desire to cook,” she said.