Some 780,000 years ago, prehistoric humans regularly gathered near the Jordan River in what is now northern Israel and used a sophisticated, controlled fire to cook and eat huge fish caught at the nearby Lake Hula.
That is the finding of groundbreaking new research by an international team from leading Israeli universities and other institutions in Israel and abroad, who say they have identified the earliest hard evidence of human cooking found anywhere in the world.
The research, published in the Nature peer-reviewed journal, is focused on the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov Acheulian site near the Jordan River, in the Hula Valley, north of the Sea of Galilee. Some of the earliest-ever evidence of the use of controlled fire by early humans was found at this site almost 20 years ago, but until now, what the fire was used for had not been proven.
The team analyzed the remains of carp-like fish teeth found at the site, concluding that they were about 780,000 years old, and that the fish were heated to a specific temperature using a slow-cooking method, which melted the rest of the skeleton before they were eaten.
The group included researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and Bar-Ilan University, who collaborated with the Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
A joint statement released by Tel Aviv University said that, until now, the earliest hard evidence of cooking by early humans was approximately 170,000 years old, which would mean the new find predates it by some 600,000 years.
While there has been earlier evidence of controlled use of fire — including ashes from a million years ago found in a cave in South Africa — the correlation between the use of fire and cooking was not proven, making the current study unique, according to Dr. Irit Zohar of Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.
This is also the first study to show how important fish was for the early hominins in their migration route from Africa to the Levant, and beyond, another important aspect of the research, Dr. Zohar told The Times of Israel.
Not only did these habitats provide drinking water and attract animals to the area, but catching fish in shallow water is a relatively simple and safe task with a high nutritional reward, the researchers said.
The study “demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans for their diet and economic stability,” Zohar and fellow researcher Dr. Marion Prevost of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology were quoted saying in a statement.
“By studying the fish remains found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, we were able to reconstruct, for the first time, the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake and to show that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time,” they added. “These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that reached up to two meters [6.5 feet] in length. The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques,” they said.
The question of when early humans began using fire to cook food has been the subject of much scientific discussion for over a century, with some scientists believing that this development was critical to its cognitive evolution, providing a central catalyst for the development of the human brain.
Eating cooked food reduced the bodily energy required to break down and digest it, allowing other physical systems to develop, such as changes in the structure of the human jaw and skull. This freed humans from the daily, intensive work of searching for and digesting raw food, providing them with free time in which to develop new social and behavioral systems.
In the study, the researchers focused on pharyngeal teeth — used to grind up hard food such as shells — belonging to fish from the carp family. These teeth were found in large quantities at different archaeological strata at the site, indicating they had been at the site over a long period of time.
“We couldn’t find anywhere else in the world where only fish teeth were found, without the rest of the skeleton,” Zohar told The Times of Israel, leading them to theorize that the fish was cooked to a relatively low temperature, enough to dissolve the rest of the skeleton but not to burn away the teeth.
By studying the structure of the crystals that form the teeth enamel — whose size increases through exposure to heat — the researchers were able to prove that theory, showing the fish were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking and were not simply burned in a fire.
“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, noting that there are difficulties in identifying changes when cooking temperatures are kept between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius (390-930 degrees Farenheit).
“The experiments I conducted with Dr. Zohar allowed us to identify the changes caused by cooking at low temperatures,” Najorka said. “We do not know exactly how the fish was 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.”
“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,” said Hebrew University Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar, director of the excavation site.
“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,” she added. “These groups were deeply familiar with their environment and the various resources it offered them. 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.”
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