Have you ever been on a salad kick, say in the heights of summer when it’s too hot too cook, and all those crunchy veggies are fine and dandy, until the weather turns and you can finally fire up the oven, and that first bite of roast beef or chicken or lasagne with a bolognese sauce—the taste of cooked food that has undergone that irreversible chemical transformation—just, as the kids say, hits different?
Now imagine that moment, but on a species-wide scale. Scientists have been trying to nail down that moment—exactly when we (or one of our Homo genus cousins) harnessed and controlled fire to cook food—for centuries. The cooking process is known to make foods easier to digest and unlocks certain nutrients, that allowed us to both grow our brains and spend less time using them to acquire raw grazing materials. A game-changing discovery by a team from three Israeli universities has shown that our ancestors invented cooking at least 780,000 years ago, a whopping 610,000 years earlier than the previous estimate!
The proof was in the remains of a giant fire-roasted barb (a carp-like fish), found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site by the team. The findings of their study were recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.
“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. 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 the fish caught at the ancient Hula Lake, adjacent to the site, were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking, and were not simply burned by a spontaneous fire.”
The team found extensive evidence of roasted barb on the site, which points to a long tradition of settlement there, and of passing down cooking skills. Further investigation may also prove a hypothesis that the eating of fish in particular represented a “quantum leap” in human development; as we now know, omega-3 fatty acids, present at high levels in fish, as well as zinc and iodine, support cognition.
It seems that this ancient barbecue, on the shores of Hula Lake, wasn’t just a get-together for the family group that ate that day—in a way, all humans were there, changing the future, one flame-grilled bite at a time.