Earliest sign of controlled fire for cooking found in Israel, dating back nearly 800,000 years

A huge carp-like fish, two metres in length, found in Israel, shows that fish were cooked roughly 780,000 years ago. Until now, the earliest evidence for cooking dates to around 170,000 years ago.

Cooking – the act of processing food by controlling the temperature at which it is heated – developed at some point in human history. It is also widely accepted that preparing our food in this way would have had a major impact on brain development and how the human body evolved.

Pinpointing when humans began cooking has been subject to much debate over the last century. Some research suggests a surge in brain size 1.8 million years ago in human ancestor Homo erectus is related to cooked meals.

But concrete evidence of cooking in prehistory is rare.

Findings published in Nature Ecology and Evolution show definitively that the earliest known cooked meal was 780,000 years ago in modern-day Israel. The study was conducted by a team of researchers from Israeli universities.

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The team analysed the remains of a carp-like fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site in Israel.

An illustration of hominins exploiting and cooking Luciobarbus longiceps (large barb, Cyprinidae) on the shores of paleo Lake Hula (illustration by Ella Maru). Credit: Tel Aviv University.

Pharyngeal teeth (used to grind up hard food such as shells) from the carp were found in large quantities at the site. Studying the structure of the crystals that form the teeth enamel (which increase in size when exposed to heat), the researchers were able to prove that the fish were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire.

“This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” say first author Dr Irit Zohar, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and corresponding author Dr Marion Prevost from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

They add that the find also helps reconstruct the fish population of the region for the first time.

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“The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques,” Zohar and Prevost explain. “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 carp skull presented is from the Natural History Collections housed at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Tel Aviv University. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

“The fact that the cooking of fish is evident over such a long and unbroken period of settlement at the site indicates a continuous tradition of cooking food,” says co-author and director of the excavation site, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Naama Goren-Inbar. “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.”

The authors suggest that not only was the transition from eating raw to cooked food important for our development, but that fish might have played a critical role in human evolution. Omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine and other compounds common in fish are known to contribute greatly to brain development.

Location of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archeological site on Home erectus route out of Africa. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

In fact, the research team believe that freshwater areas – some which have long since dried up, leaving arid desert behind – may have determined the migration of early humans out of Africa.

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