It's one of our favorite things to talk about on the podcast: speculating when the first humans learned to cook meat with fire. Did a boar just fall into a pit of fire one day and cavemen realized that its meat tasted better cooked? We still don't know the answer for sure, but new discoveries in a South African cave give us a better idea of when this revelation may have happened. Ash and tortoise bone found by studying the sediments on a cave floor in South Africa indicate that the hominins living there used fire to some extent. It's not conclusive proof that these cavemen cooked those tortoises or even created the fire themselves (as opposed to carrying it to the cave from naturally occurring wildfires), but anthropologists are calling it an exciting breakthrough that calls for re-examination of other caves on the continent. Previously, the earliest convincing evidence of Homo Erectus having access to fire were in primitive hearths dated to around 400,000 years ago.
The use of fire for cooking was by no means a small discovery. Cooked meat could have been the catalyst for shaping our anatomy, including fostering the development of a bigger brain and upright body posture. According to evolutionary anthropologist Richard Wrangham at Harvard:
The ability to cook food would have allowed early humans to spend less time looking for food and given them more expendable energy. It could help explain, among other body changes, why human teeth became smaller — less need to spend time chewing. It could have reduced the time between births, allowing for population growth, and perhaps allowed for the development of a larger brain.
The discovery doesn't answer how or when cooked meat was first realized, and anthropologists admit it's possible that these cavemen still ate raw meat and just threw bones in the fire. But one thing's for sure--this is going to be excellent fuel for future podcast discussions.
Bonus link: one of my favorite fire-related poster designs.
Update: Reader Daniel Connor, who is an archaeologist in the UK, emailed with some insight:
Basically from ethnographic studies, studying Amazon and African "tribes" (the correct term is enthno-linguistic groups) or anyone seen as culturally closest to stone age people; anthropologists have seen that cooking the meat is a bi-product, the original intention was to warm the meat up to the same level as a freshly killed animal. In fact, eating raw meat, even pork and chicken, does not have any particularly bad side effects if you start eating it young enough. One of the reasons we would now get sick now is the taste and texture of what we were swallowing, not what was actually been eaten.
From an archaeological point of view, burnt bones and other animal debris is only really found around fire places from the Mesolithic onward, about 8000 years ago in the middle east and around 5000 years ago everywhere else.In the Palaeolithic periods, the earliest modern humans, three distinct types of human occupation have been found:
- Areas where animals are killed which sometimes contain evidence of eating.
- Areas where animals where prepared, bones marked with scrap marks, these are also seen as ritual locations.
- Finally areas defined by fire pits and the very few remains of material activity that survive, marked and shaped stones are found here. However little to no animal remains.From these archaeologists concluded that eating was done at a distance, no doubt as soon as the animal was killed. This would explain why, as humans became more immobile in their day to day living, cooking became more prevalent eventually to the state today where eating raw meat is unheard of.