How cooking and gathering for the holidays made us human

This illustration provided by Tel Aviv University shows hominins preparing Luciobarbus longiceps fish on the shores of ancient Hula Lake. A recent study found the oldest evidence for the use of fire for cooking, dating back 780,000 years. Credit: Ella Maru/Tel Aviv University via AP

Whether you’re cooking a Thanksgiving meal or just showing up for a feast, you’re part of a long human history, one that’s older than our own species.

Some scientists estimate that our first human cousins ​​may have been using fire to cook their food almost 2 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens appeared.

And a recent study found what may be the oldest known evidence of this rudimentary cooking: leftovers from a roast carp dinner from 780,000 years ago.

Cooking food marked more than a lifestyle change for our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution, gave us bigger brains, and would later become the centerpiece of the feasting rituals that brought communities together.

“The story of human evolution seems to be the story of what we eat,” said Matt Sponheimer, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied the diets of early human ancestors.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolutionit is based on material from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, a watery site on the shores of an ancient lake.

Artifacts from the area suggest it was home to a community of Homo erectus, an extinct species of early humans that walked upright, explained lead author Irit Zohar of Tel Aviv University.

During years of “digging in the mud” at the site, the researchers examined a curious catch of fish remains, especially teeth, said Naama Goren-Inbar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who led the excavations.

Many were from a pair of large carp species and were clustered at certain points around the site, places where the researchers also found signs of fire. The tests revealed that the teeth had been exposed to high temperatures, but not very hot. This suggests that the fish was cooked over low, slow heat, rather than thrown directly into the fire, Zohar explained.

Putting all of this evidence together, the authors concluded that these human cousins ​​had harnessed fire for cooking more than three-quarters of a million years ago. That’s long before the next oldest evidence for cooking, which showed Stone Age humans ate charred roots in South Africa.

The researchers, like many of their colleagues, believe that cooking began much earlier, although physical evidence has been hard to find.

“I am confident that a previous case will be reported in the near future,” study author Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said in an email.

That’s partly because harnessing fire for food was a key step in human evolution.

Cooking food makes it easier for the body to digest and obtain nutrients, explained David Braun, an archaeologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study. So when the first humans figured out how to cook, they had access to more energy, which they could use to power bigger brains.

Based on how the brains and bodies of human ancestors developed, scientists estimate that culinary skills must have emerged nearly 2 million years ago.

“If we’re eating raw food, it’s very difficult to achieve as a large-bodied primate,” Braun said.

Those early cooked meals were a far cry from today’s turkey dinners. And in the many, many years in between, humans began to eat not just for fuel, but for community as well.

In a 2010 study, researchers described the earliest evidence of a feast: a specially prepared meal that brought people together for an occasion 12,000 years ago in a cave in Israel.

The cave, which served as a burial site, included the remains of a special woman who appeared to be a shaman to her community, said Natalie Munro, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who led the study.

It seems that his people held a party in honor of his death. Munro and his team found a large number of animal remains at the site, including enough tortoises and wild cattle to create a bountiful assortment.

This “first party” came from another major transition point in human history, just as hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle into more permanent living situations, Munro said. Gathering for special meals may have been a way to build community and smooth over tensions now that people were more or less together, she said.

And while the typical party may no longer involve eating turtle meat in burial caves, Munro said he still sees many of the same roles — exchanging information, making connections, competing for status — in our modern gatherings.

“This is essentially a human thing,” Munro said. “And seeing the first evidence of it is exciting.”

More information:
Irit Zohar et al, Evidence for cooking fish 780,000 years ago at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, Nature Ecology and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01910-z

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