By Aislinn Sanders
When did hominins utilize fire for cooking? A new study published on November 14th, 2022, suggests that hominins mastered fire for cooking 600,000 years earlier than previous research claimed. Previously, the estimated date of the use of fire for cooking purposes by hominins was around 170,00 years ago, and fire was believed to be used by both early Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals.
The 16-years-long research project of Irit Zohar, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, focused on the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site in northern Israel. She found that this site contained almost no fish bones but many fish teeth. Likewise, a colleague found flints and evidence of some type of fireplace. In instances of adding heat, fish bones will soften and, eventually, disintegrate, at temperatures below 930°F or 500°C, but teeth do not. The study analyzed 56 fish teeth heated to various temperatures in a lab setting against those of the 33 fossilized teeth to identify changes in the bioapatite crystallite size, the way in which crystals that make up the enamel are affected by temperature changes. Results pointed to a cooking of the fish between temperatures of 400-930°F or 200-500°C. Zohar also believed that the fish were cooked in a hearth-like setting.
However, critics of the study claim that this is not sufficient evidence to place the use of fire for cooking to 780,000 years ago. Anaïs Marrast, archaeozoologist at the National Museum of Natural History in France, suggested that, while the teeth were heated, the motive of this action remained unknown. The fish could have been cooked, or the carcasses could have been burned to throw away the remains after consumption.
The full published study can be read here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-022-01910-z