TAU researchers among those finding oldest evidence of the use of fire to cook food

Remains of a huge carp-like fish reveal the earliest signs of cooking by prehistoric humans

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A close analysis of the remains of a carp-like fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological site in Israel shows that the fish were cooked roughly 780,000 years ago, a collaborative study that included Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers says. Until now, the earliest evidence of cooking dated to approximately 170,000 years ago. The question of when early man began using fire to cook food has been the subject of much scientific discussion for over a century. These findings shed new light on the matter and were published on November 14, 2022, in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The discovery was made by researchers from TAU, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), and Bar-Ilan University (BIL), in collaboration with TAU’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR) institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. The study was led by Dr. Irit Zohar, a researcher at TAU’s Steinhardt Museum and curator of the Beit Margolin Biological Collections at Oranim Academic College, and Hebrew University Professor Naama Goren-Inbar, director of the excavation site.  The research team also included Dr. Marion Prevost at HU’s Institute of Archaeology; Professor Nira Alperson-Afil at BIU’s Department for Israel Studies and Archaeology; Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London; Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute; Professor Thomas Tütken of the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz; and Professor Israel Hershkovitz at TAU’s Faculty of Medicine.

The researchers define “cooking” as the ability to process food by controlling the temperature at which it is heated and includes a wide range of methods. “This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” Dr. Zohar and Dr. Prevost say. “Further, by studying the fish remains found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqob, 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. These species included giant barbs (carp-like fish) that reached up to two meters in length. The large quantity of fish remains found at the site proves their frequent consumption by early humans, who developed special cooking techniques. 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.”

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.

Until now, evidence of the use of fire for cooking had been limited to sites that came into use 600,000 years later than the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site. “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,” Prof. Goren-Inbar says. “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.  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.”

Professor Hershkovitz and Dr. Zohar note that the transition from eating raw food to eating cooked food had dramatic implications for human development and behavior.  Eating cooked food reduces the bodily energy required to break down and digest food, allowing other physical systems to develop.  It also leads to changes in the structure of the human jaw and skull. This change freed humans from the daily, intensive work of searching for and digesting raw food, providing them free time in which to develop new social and behavioral systems. Some scientists view eating fish as a milestone in the quantum leap in human cognitive evolution, providing a central catalyst for the development of the human brain.  They claim that eating fish is what made us human. Even today, it is widely known that the contents of fish flesh, such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine and more, contribute greatly to brain development.

The research team believe that the location of freshwater areas, some of them in areas that have long since dried up and become arid deserts, determined the route of the migration of early man from Africa to the Levant and beyond. Not only did these habitats provide drinking water and attracted animals to the area, but catching fish in shallow water is a relatively simple and safe task with a very high nutritional reward.

The team says that exploiting fish in freshwater habitats was the first step on prehistoric humans’ route out of Africa. Early man began to eat fish around 2 million years ago but cooking fish represented a real revolution in the Acheulian diet and is an important foundation for understanding the relationship between man, the environment, climate, and migration when attempting to reconstruct the history of early humans.

Exploiting fish in freshwater habitats was the first step on prehistoric humans’ route out of Africa, researchers say