How cooking food and gathering feasts made us human

When you cook Thanksgiving dinner or just turn up to feast, you’re part of a long human history — one that predates our own species.

Some scientists estimate that almost 2 million years ago, our early human cousins ​​used fire to cook their food, well before Homo sapiens appeared.

And a recent study found what may be the earliest known evidence of this rudimentary preparation: the remains of a fried carp meal from 780,000 years ago.

Cooking food was more than just a lifestyle change for our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution, gave us bigger brains—and later became the centerpiece of the festival rituals that brought communities together.

“The history of human evolution seems to be the history 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 Evolution, is based on material from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel — a watery site on the shore of an ancient lake.

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

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

Many were from a few large carp species, and they were clustered around specific spots on the site — places where researchers also found signs of fire. Tests showed the teeth were hot but not exposed to super hot temperatures. This suggests the fish was cooked low and slow, rather than thrown directly onto a fire, Zohar explained.

With all this evidence together, the authors concluded that these human cousins ​​had been using fire for cooking more than three quarters of a million years ago. This is much earlier than the next oldest evidence of cooking, which showed Stone Age people in South Africa eating charred roots.

The researchers – like many of their colleagues – believe cooking began long before that, although physical evidence has been difficult to find.

“I’m sure an earlier case will be reported in the near future,” study author Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said in an email.

This is partly because harnessing fire as food was a key step in human evolution.

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

Based on how human ancestors’ brains and bodies evolved, scientists estimate that the art of cooking should have emerged almost 2 million years ago.

“When we eat raw food out there, it’s very difficult to do it as a large-bodied primate,” Braun said.

Those early cooked meals were a far cry from today’s turkey meals. And in the many, many years in between, people started eating not just 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 in a cave in Israel 12,000 years ago.

The cave used as a burial site contained the remains of a special woman who appeared to be a shaman for her community, said Natalie Munro, a University of Connecticut anthropologist who led the study.

Apparently her people held a festival in honor of her death. Munro and her team found a large number of animal remains on site – including enough turtles and wild cattle to create a hearty spread.

This “first festival” came from another important transition point in human history, just as hunter-gatherers began to settle into more permanent living situations, Munro said. Getting together for special meals might have been a way to build community and ease tension now that people were more or less holding on to each other, she said.

And while the typical feast no longer involves munching turtle meat in burial caves, Munro sees that she still sees many of the same roles — sharing information, making connections, vying for status — in our modern gatherings.

“It’s something that’s just human,” Munro said. “And to see the early evidence of this is exciting.”

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