A group of Israeli and international researchers found the earliest evidence of prehistoric humans resorting to sophisticated cooking methods some 780,000 years ago to prepare and eat fish shedding new light on the scientific question of when early man started to use fire to cook food.
The researchers analyzed the remains of 6.5 feet long carp fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archaeological site in northern Israel and discovered that they were cooked about 780,000 years ago, predating available scholarly data by some 600,000 years.
“The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques,” according to Irit Zohar, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and Marion Prevost at Hebrew University’s (HU) Institute of Archaeology. “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 findings of the joint study were published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution by researchers from the HU, the TAU, and Bar-Ilan University (BIU), together with the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.
At the excavation site on the shores of the Jordan River, large quantities of teeth belonging to fish from the carp family were found. The researchers found that the fish caught by prehistoric humans at the ancient Hula Lake were exposed to temperatures used for cooking.
“The experiments allowed us to identify the changes caused by cooking at low temperatures,” explained Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London. “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.”
While the researchers emphasized that the use of fire by early humans at the Gesher excavation site had already been discovered previously, this study proves the correlation between the use of fire and cooking food.
HU Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, director of the excavation site noted that the findings of the study point to the “high cognitive capabilities of the Acheulian hunter-gatherers who were active in the ancient Hula Valley region.”
“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,” according to Goren-Inbar. “It is even possible that cooking was not limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants.”