NEW YORK — If you’re cooking a meal for Thanksgiving or just showing up to feast, you’re part of a long human history — one that’s older than our own species.
Some scientists estimate our early human cousins may have been using fire to cook their food almost 2 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens showed up.
And a recent study found what could be the earliest known evidence of this rudimentary cooking: the leftovers of a roasted carp dinner from 780,000 years ago.
Cooking food marked more than just a lifestyle change for our ancestors. Cooking helped us evolve, gave us larger brains, and eventually, became the central part of communal feasting that brought people together.
“The story of human evolution has appeared 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.
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.
After years of digging in the mud at the site, archaeologist Naama Goren Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led the excavations, she said that researchers discovered a strange catch of fish bones, including teeth.
Many were from a couple of species of big carp, and they were clustered around certain spots at the site — places where researchers also found signs of fire. Testing revealed the teeth had been exposed to temperatures that were hot, but not super-hot. Zohar said that the heat used to cook the fish suggests they were slow and cooked over a low fire rather than being thrown on a flame.
Using all this evidence, the authors determined that human relatives had used fire to cook more than three-quarters of a millennium ago. This is much more than what the next-oldest evidence shows that Stone Age people ate charred root in South Africa.
The researchers — like many of their colleagues — believe cooking started long before this, though physical evidence has been hard to come by.
” I am certain that in the near future a earlier case will be published,” Israel Hershkovitz, a study author at Tel Aviv University stated in an email.
That’s in part because harnessing fire for food was a key step for human evolution.
Cooking food makes it easier for the body to digest and get nutrients, explained David Braun, an archaeologist at George Washington University who was not involved with the study. When early humans learned how to cook, it gave them more energy that they could then use to power larger brains.
Based on how human ancestors’ brains and bodies developed, scientists estimate that cooking skills would have had to emerge nearly 2 million years ago.
“If we’re out there eating raw items, it is very difficult to make it as a large-bodied primate,” Braun said.
Those first cooked meals were a far cry from today’s turkey dinners. And in the many, many years in between, humans started not just eating for fuel, but for community.
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 was used as a burial ground and contained the remains of one woman, Natalie Munro from the University of Connecticut, who conducted the research.
It seems that her family held a celebration to celebrate her passing. Munro and her team found large numbers of animal remains at the site — including enough tortoises and wild cattle to create a hearty spread.
This “first feast” was a transitional moment in human history. It occurred as hunters-gatherers began to settle down into permanent living arrangements, Munro explained. Gathering for special meals may have been a way to build community and smooth tensions now that people were more or less stuck with each other, she said.
And while the typical feast may no longer involve munching on tortoise meat in burial caves, Munro said she still sees a lot of the same roles — exchanging information, making connections, vying for status — happening at our modern gatherings.
“This is something that’s just quintessentially human,” Munro said. “And to see the first evidence of it is exciting.”
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