Earliest Cooking Evidence Shows Our Ancestors Liked Well-Done Fish


Pierre Celerier (AFP)

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Tue, November 15, 2022

2022-11-15
11:35
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science and technology
archaeology, historian, homo-sapiens
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Early human ancestors living 780,000 years ago liked their fish well-cooked, Israeli researchers revealed on Monday, in what they said was the first evidence that fire was used for cooking.

The exact date when our ancestors started cooking has been the subject of controversy among archaeologists because it is difficult to prove that an ancient fireplace was used to prepare food, and not just to keep warm.

But the birth of the culinary arts marks an important 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 throughout the world.

Previously, the first ‘definitive proof’ of cooking was by Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens 170,000 years ago, according to a new study published 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 its first author Irit Zohar, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

During that time, she cataloged thousands of fish remains found at a site called Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in northern Israel.

The site near the banks of the Jordan River once housed a lake, where a treasure trove of ancient fish fossils helped the research team pinpoint exactly when early cooks began to get inventive in the kitchen.

“It was like facing a puzzle, with more and more information until we could make a story about human evolution,” Zohar told AFP.

‘Want to cook’?

The first clue came from an area that had “almost no fish bones” but lots of teeth, she said.

It could indicate cooking because fish bones soften and disintegrate at temperatures below 500 degrees Celsius – but their teeth remain.

In the same area, a colleague of Zohar found burnt flints and other evidence that it had once been used as a fireplace.

And most of the teeth belonged to just two particularly large carp species, suggesting they had been selected for their “juicy” meat, according to the study. Some carp were over two meters long.

The “decisive” evidence came from studying tooth enamel, Zohar said.

Researchers used a technique called X-ray powder diffraction at the Natural History Museum in London to find out how heating changes the structure of the crystals that make up enamel.

By comparing the results with other fish fossils, they found that the teeth in the key area of ​​the lake were subjected to a temperature between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius.

This is exactly the ideal range for a well-cooked fish.

Whether our predecessors baked, grilled, poached or sautéed their fish is unknown, although research has suggested they may have used some kind of earthen oven.

It is believed that fire was first brought under control by Homo erectus around 1.7 million years ago.

But “because you can control the fire to keep warm, that doesn’t mean you control it to cook – they could have eaten the fish next to the fire,” Zohar said.

Then human ancestors could have thrown the bones into the fire, said Anaïs Marrast, an archaeozoologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History not involved in the study.

“The whole question of fire exposure is whether it’s getting rid of leftovers or an urge to cook,” she said.


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