Israel-led team finds oldest use of controlled fire to cook food

The discovery, in northern Israel, predates the earliest known sample thus far by some 600,000 years.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

An international team of researchers led by a group of Israeli universities has discovered the earliest meal ever cooked by prehistoric man, in the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archeological site in northern Israel.

The prepared remains of a huge carp-like fish, 6.5 feet long, has been dated as being some 780,000 years old, which smashes the record of the oldest known fire-cooked food by about 610,000 years.

The team that carried out the analysis came from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), Tel Aviv University (TAU), and Bar-Ilan University (BIU), in collaboration with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, Oranim Academic College, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institution, the Natural History Museum in London, and the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

The researchers found the remains of teeth of ancient carp from the adjacent Hula Lake 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), they were able to prove that the fish were exposed to the lower temperatures suitable for cooking, rather than being burned by a spontaneous fire.

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“We do not know exactly how the fish were cooked,” said Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum, “but given the lack of evidence of exposure to high temperatures, it is clear that they were not cooked directly in fire and were not thrown into a fire as waste or as material for burning.”

The GBY site documents a continuum of repeated settlement by groups of hunter-gatherers on the shores of the ancient Hula Lake lasting tens of thousands of years, according to site director HU Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar.

“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,” she said. “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.”

“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,” Goren-Inbar added. “It is even possible that cooking was not limited to fish, but also included various types of animals and plants.”

Other archeological discoveries at the site include flint, basalt, and limestone tools, as well as the food sources that included large and medium-sized animals, fruits and nuts, besides the fish.

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Some scientists view eating fish as a milestone in the quantum leap in human cognitive evolution. Modern research has shown that fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iodine and other elements that contribute greatly to brain development.

The findings have been published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, an online, monthly, peer-reviewed scientific journal.