Cooking is one of the foundations of any culture, but we don’t really know how long we humans have been cooking. A new discovery has limited the era in which this fundamental step was taken: we have been putting our food on fire for at least 780,000 years.
Gesher Benot Ya’akov. Archaeologists who have analyzed this environment, close to the routes by which the different hominin species could have left Africa, have found numerous remains of these possible ancestors of our species. But with these remains, researchers have found many other objects, including tools, fruit, seeds, and berries, as well as animal remains.
Among the latter, some remains of a species similar to the perch. These have been the remains that have led to rewrite the history of the kitchen.
We don’t know the recipe. The team responsible for the discovery has given the details of it in an article published in the magazine Nature Ecology and Evolution. In it they detail that it was through the crystallization of the enamel of the fish’s teeth that they verified that they had been cooked and not simply thrown into the fire after the banquet. That is, they had been exposed to a suitable temperature to be cooked.
Jens Najorka, one of the authors of the study, explained in a press release “When [los restos] are burned by fire, it is easy to identify the drastic change in the size of the glaze crystals, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius.”
“We don’t know exactly how these fish were cooked, but given the lack of evidence on exposure to high temperatures it is clear that they were not cooked directly on the fire or thrown into the fire as waste or burning material.”
Between erectus and the Neanderthals. This is the first reliable evidence we have of hominin culinary habits, but it is not the oldest evidence we have of controlled use of fire. We know that our ancestors began to control fire 1.5 million years ago. We know this thanks to the remains left behind by the erectus who still inhabited the African continent. Bones were found in these remains. In this case, burned.
This finding significantly limits the era in which we began to cook. To date, the oldest evidence of this practice dated back 170,000 years and was also discovered in Africa. At this point the Neanderthals, the closest species to ours, were already roaming the Earth.
A time of transition. During this time, the erectus still inhabited the Earth, perhaps together with other species such as the Homo luzonensis (who lived far away in Southeast Asia) and the Homo antecessorthe species that inhabited the Atapuerca site.
This last species represented an important evolutionary leap that led to the appearance, several hundred thousand years after Neanderthals and Homo sapiensand with the latter, the subgroup that encompasses us, the “anatomically modern humans”.
The kitchen hypothesis. For some researchers, there is much more than a cultural issue behind the kitchen. The kitchen hypothesis (cooking hypothesis) postulates that this custom allowed a substantial evolutionary change in the development of human beings. The effect would have been especially noticeable at the cognitive level.
Cooking would have given humans the opportunity to extract more nutrients from food in proportion to the amount eaten. The implication is twofold. On the one hand, more nutrients imply a healthier and more developed brain, and with it more capable. On the other hand, feeding would have required less hunting and gathering effort, giving humans time for socialization and with it for learning.
One (evolutionary) step forward. Whether the theory is correct or not, the arrival of the kitchen brought about a radical change for humans. In this regard, Naama Goren-Inbar, another of the co-authors of the study, pointed out that these hominins “were familiar with their own environment and the resources it offered.
“Moreover, this shows that they had extensive knowledge of the life cycles of different plant and animal species. Acquiring the knowledge to cook food marks a significant evolutionary advance (…). It is even possible that the cuisine was not limited to fish, but included various types of animals and plants”, adds Goren-Inbar.
Image | gildemax, Commons