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Early man was using fire to cook food 600,000 years earlier than we previously thought

Cooking with fire apparently wasn't exclusive to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Illustration of first fire

Charlie McGee has the unusual and potentially fatal ability to control fire with her mind. That ability is the source of horror in both the 1984 and 2022 big screen adaptations of Stephen King’s novel Firestarter, but in the course of human evolution, controlling fire was an invaluable part of our development and survival.

It’s apparent that we must have put the reigns around fire at some point, to the degree that we can now send massive rockets to the Moon and beyond, but there was some debate within the scientific community about precisely when that happened. Until recently, the oldest evidence we had for the controlled use of fire to cook food dated to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals roughly 170,000 years ago. Now, with a recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, that record got destroyed by more than 600,000 years, and by an entirely different variety of hominid.

Dr. Irit Zohar, a researcher at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and Curator of Biological Collections at the Oranim Academic College, and colleagues, found evidence of cookfires at a site called Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in modern day Israel dating back to 780,000 years ago.

“Today, it’s located on the Jordan Rift Valley in the norther part of Israel, on the back of the Jordan River. If you go back nearly a million years ago, it was located on the bank of a lake named Lake Hula,” Zohar told SYFY WIRE.

If you look for Lake Hula today, you’re likely to struggle. The lake was drained in the 1950s and today it’s little more than a depression in the landscape where the lake used to be. In the distant past, though, it was relatively large and shallow, like the lakes you can still find today in parts of Africa.

Scientists don’t have precise numbers for the number of people living at the site nearly a million years ago, but they can make some educated estimates based on the evidence they’ve found. Scientists have found the remains of fish, land animals, and vegetables, as well as stone tools. Using those artifacts as a reference, they suspect there was a large group of early hominids living at the edge of the lake.

“It was probably Homo erectus. The culture is very similar to Homo erectus, based on the stone tools we recovered,” Zohar said. “I believe these early hominids had higher cognitive abilities than some researchers believe, and they were able to use fire for cooking. When you examine the diversity of animal and plant remains recovered, you see people who were very sophisticated and knew how to exploit their environment very well.”

Illustration Of First Fire

Studying those ancient peoples’ relationship with food was complicated by the location of the site. Because it was on the bank of a lake, the site was periodically inundated with water, anytime the water levels rose. As a result, scientists needed a way to differentiate fish who died naturally and were deposited at the site by high waters, and fish who were hunted by hominids.

It turns out the secret to sorting the natural deaths from the unnatural ones was in the teeth, specifically the enamel crystals on their surface. When fish teeth are heated to high temperatures, the crystals grow larger. Fish teeth with ordinary crystals were either deposited naturally or were eaten raw, but crystals which were larger must have been heated and researchers argue a cookfire is the only good explanation. Moreover, scientists noticed a strange absence of fish bones around the site. There were plenty of teeth, but very few bones. Zohar explained that when you cook a fish to sufficient temperatures, the bones turn to gelatin, but the teeth endure. The fish could then be eaten whole, jelly bones and all.

The work concludes that the use of controlled fire for the cooking of food significantly predates the previous oldest evidence and was not a behavior exclusive to Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

“As time passes, and technology and methodology develop, people will find out that they have a higher cognitive ability than thought before,” Zohar said.

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