Researchers have found the oldest evidence of ancient humans cooking 780,000 years ago, at an archaeological site in Israel.
It was found through the discovery of large quantities of pharyngeal fish teeth, which are used to grind up hard food such as shells, at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqob archaeological site in the Hula Valley, Northern Israel.
The researchers studied the structure of crystals that form the teeth enamel, whose size increases through exposure to heat, and were able to prove that the fish were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking.
They were also able to reconstruct the area’s ancient fish population for the first time, and found that the lake held species of giant carp-like fish that reached up to two meters in length (six and a half feet), and that became extinct over time.
Until now, the earliest evidence of cooking dates to approximately 170,000 years ago.
“In this study, we used geochemical methods to identify changes in the size of the tooth enamel crystals, as a result of exposure to different cooking temperatures,” said Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London.
“When they are burnt by fire, it is easy to identify the dramatic change in the size of the enamel crystals, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius.
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“We do not know exactly how the fish were cooked but given the lack of evidence of exposure to high temperatures, it is clear that they were not cooked directly in fire, and were not thrown into a fire as waste or as material for burning.”
Prof Naama Goren-Inbar, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and director of the excavation site, said: “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.
“This is another in a series of discoveries relating to the high cognitive capabilities of the Acheulian hunter-gatherers who were active in the ancient Hula Valley 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.”
The findings were published in the academic journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.