An international study led by researchers from several leading Israeli universities uncovered the earliest known evidence of controlled use of fire for the purpose of cooking. By analyzing remains found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov (GBY) archaeological site in Israel, the researchers were able to ascertain that some fish were cooked around 780,000 years ago, predating the available data by some 600,000 years.
The findings, which have significant implications in understanding the life of prehistoric humans, were published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Gesher Benot Ya‘aqov is located in the Dead Sea Rift, a segment of the African Great Rift System, south of the Hula Valley in northern Israel. Israeli archaeologists have been excavating the site for decades.
“This study demonstrates the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” said Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Irit Zohar and Hebrew University’s Dr. Marion Prevost. “By studying the fish remains found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqob we were able to reconstruct, for the first time, the fish population of the ancient Hula Lake and to show that the lake held fish species that became extinct over time.”
According to the researchers, these species included giant barbs (carp like fish) that reached up to 2 meters in length.
“These new findings demonstrate not only the importance of freshwater habitats and the fish they contained for the sustenance of prehistoric man, but also illustrate prehistoric humans’ ability to control fire in order to cook food, and their understanding the benefits of cooking fish before eating it,” they also said.
The scientists were able to establish that the fish were exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking by analyzing their pharyngeal teeth found at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov.
“In this study, we used geochemical methods to identify changes in the size of the tooth enamel crystals, as a result of exposure to different cooking temperatures,” said Dr. Jens Najorka of the Natural History Museum in London, who took part in the study.
“When they are burnt by fire, it is easy to identify the dramatic change in the size of the enamel crystals, but it is more difficult to identify the changes caused by cooking at temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius,” he explained. “The experiments I conducted with Dr. Zohar allowed us to identify the changes caused by cooking at low temperatures. We do not know exactly how the fish were cooked 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.”
According to the researchers, the site offers evidence of a “continuous tradition of cooking food.”
“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,” said Hebrew University’s Professor Naama Goren-Inbar. “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. These groups were deeply familiar with their environment and the various resources it offered them.”