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Israelis discover proof that early people cooked meals

About 780,000 years ago, prehistoric people regularly gathered near the Jordan River in what is now northern Israel for a very ingenious way of cooking the large fish caught in the waters of Lake Hula.

This was discovered by an international team from leading Israeli and foreign universities and institutions who believe they have found the first tangible evidence of human cooking.

Her research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Naturecentered on the Acheulean site of Gesher Benot Yaakov near the Jordan River in the Hula Valley, north of the Sea of ​​Galilee.

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The first traces of controlled use of fire by early humans were found at this site almost 20 years ago, but to this day the motive for using the fire has not been elucidated.

The team analyzed the remains of carp-like fish teeth found at the crime scene and concluded that they were around 780,000 years old and that the fish had been heated to a specific temperature using a slow-cooking method capable of to melt the edges.

The team consists of researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University, working with Oranim Academic College, the Israel Institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research, the Natural History Museum in London and Johannes Gutenberg University worked together in Mainz, Germany.

A joint statement from Tel Aviv University clarifies that the earliest evidence of cooking by early humans so far is 170,000 years old: this new discovery predates it by about 600,000 years.

Drawing of prehistoric people catching and preparing carp-like fish on the shore of Lake Hula. (Illustration by Ella Maru/Tel Aviv University)

There was already evidence of the controlled use of fire – including ashes millions of years old found in a cave in South Africa – but the connection between fire and cooking had not been made, making this study unique, says Dr Zohar vom Steinhardt Tel Aviv University Museum of Natural History.

It is also the first time a study has shown how important fish were to the first hominids in their migration from Africa to the Levant and beyond, a point that represents another important axis of this research, Dr. Zohar times of Israel.

Not only were these sites a source of drinking water and attracted animals, but their shallow waters also made it easy to catch fish, which were a popular food item with high nutritional value, the researchers explain.

The study “demonstrates the central place of fish in the diet of prehistoric humans and their stability,” said Zohar and his colleague Dr. Marion Prevost of the Hebrew University’s Department of Archeology in a statement.

“By examining fish remains found at Gesher Benot Yaakov, we were able for the first time to reconstruct the fish population of ancient Hula Lake and show that the lake contained fish species that have since disappeared,” they add.

“There were giant barbel (carp-like fish) that were up to two meters long. The large amount of fish remains found at the site testify to their frequent consumption by early humans who developed special cooking techniques.

Throat teeth of ancient carp-like fish found at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel. (Source: Gabi Laron/Tel Aviv University)

The question of when the first humans began to use fire to cook food has been a subject of much debate in the scientific community for more than a century. Some scientists believe that this development was essential for human cognitive evolution and the development of his brain.

This is because eating cooked food reduced the body’s energy needed for digestion and allowed other bodily systems to develop, such as the brain. B. Changes in the structure of the human jaw or skull. This freed humans from the daily – intense – work of finding and digesting raw food and gave them time to develop new social and behavioral systems.

In this study, researchers focused on the pharyngeal teeth of fish from the carp family, which are used to grind up hard foods like clams. These teeth have been found in large numbers in different archaeological layers of the site, testifying to a very ancient presence.

3D reconstruction of the skull of ancient carp-like fish that lived in Hula Lake, highlighting the location of the pharyngeal bone and teeth. (Image credit: Tel Aviv University)

“Only there were fish teeth found without the rest of the skeleton,” Zohar explains times of Israelleading them to believe that the fish was cooked at a temperature low enough to dissolve the rest of the skeleton but not burn the teeth.

By examining the structure of the enamel-forming crystals, which increase in size when exposed to heat, the researchers were able to support this theory and show that the fish was exposed to temperatures suitable for cooking, rather than simply being burned in a fire.

“In this study, we used geochemical methods to identify changes in the size of enamel crystals after exposure to different firing temperatures,” says Dr Cooking temperatures between 200 and 500 degrees Celsius.

“The one with Dr. Experiments conducted in Zohar allowed us to identify the changes caused by low-temperature cooking,” says Najorka.

“We do not know exactly how the fish was cooked, but given the lack of evidence that it was exposed to high temperatures, it is clear that it was not cooked directly in the fire and was not thrown onto the fire as waste or burning material. »

The Israeli research team behind the discovery of the first tangible evidence of human cooking (left to right): Dr. Irit Zohar, Dr. Marion Prévost, Prof. Naama Goren, Dr. Guy Sisma-Ventura, Prof Nira Alperson-Afil and Prof Israel Hershkovitz. (Tel Aviv University)

“The fact that fish has been cooked at these sites during such a long and constant period of occupation proves the existence of a tradition of cooking food,” says Professor Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University, who led the excavations.

“This is further evidence of the high cognitive abilities of the Acheulian hunter-gatherers active in the ancient Hula Valley region,” she adds.

“These groups were very familiar with their environment and the resources it offered them. Acquiring the skills needed to cook food represents a significant evolutionary advance as it provides an additional means of making the most of the available food resources. It is even possible that the cuisine was not limited to fish, but also included animals and plants. »

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