How cooking food and gathering for holidays made us human

If you’re cooking a Thanksgiving meal or just showing up to a feast, you’re part of a long human history—one that’s older than our own species.

Some scientists believe that our early human cousins ​​may have used fire to cook their food almost 2 million years ago, long before Homo sapiens appeared.

And a recent study found what may be the earliest known evidence of this rudimentary cooking: the remains of a roast carp dinner from 780,000 years ago.

Cooking food marked more than a lifestyle change for our ancestors. It helped fuel our evolution, gave us bigger brains—and would later become the focus of the festive rituals that brought communities together.

“The story of human evolution seems to be the story of what we eat,” said Matt Sponheimer, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied the diets of early human ancestors.

The new study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, is based on material from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel, a water site on the shore of an ancient lake.

Artifacts from the area suggest it was home to a community of Homo erectus, an extinct species of early humans who walked upright, explained lead author Irit Zohar of Tel Aviv University.

During years of “digging in the mud” at the site, researchers examined a curious haul of fish remains, especially teeth, said Naamah Goren-Inbar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who led the dig.

Many were of several species of large carp and clustered around specific areas of the site — places where the researchers also found signs of fire. Testing revealed that the teeth were exposed to temperatures that were hot, but not super hot. That suggests the fish was cooked low and slow, rather than thrown straight into the fire, Zohar explained.

With all this evidence together, the authors concluded that these human cousins ​​used fire for cooking more than three-quarters of a million years ago. This is much earlier than the next oldest evidence of cooking, which shows that Stone Age people ate charred roots in South Africa.

The researchers – like many of their colleagues – believe that cooking began long before that, although physical evidence is hard to find.

“I am sure that an earlier case will be reported in the near future,” study author Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University said in an email.

This is partly because the use of fire for food was a key step in human evolution.

Cooking food makes it easier to digest and get nutrients from the body, explained David Brown, an archaeologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study. So when early humans figured out how to cook, they gained access to more energy that they could use to power bigger brains.

Based on how the brains and bodies of human ancestors evolved, scientists estimate that cooking skills must have appeared nearly 2 million years ago.

“If we’re out there eating raw, it’s very hard to do that as a large-bodied primate,” Brown said.

Those first cooked meals were a far cry from today’s turkey dinners. And in the many, many years in between, people began to not only eat for fuel, but for community.

In a 2010 study, researchers described the earliest evidence of a feast — a specially prepared meal that brought people together for an occasion 12,000 years ago in a cave in Israel.

The cave, which served as a burial site, includes the remains of a special woman who appears to have been a shaman for her community, said Natalie Munro, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who led the study.

Her people seem to have organized a feast in honor of her death. Munroe and her team found a large number of animal remains at the site—including enough turtles and wild cattle to create an abundant spread.

This “first holiday” comes from another important transition point in human history, just as hunter-gatherers were beginning to settle into more permanent living situations, Munroe said. Gathering for special meals may have been a way to build community and smooth over tensions now that people are more or less stuck with each other, she said.

And while the typical holiday may no longer involve munching on turtle meat in burial caves, Munroe said he still sees many of the same roles — sharing information, making connections, competing for status — happening at our modern gatherings.

“It’s something that’s quintessentially human,” Munroe said. “And to see the first evidence of that is exciting.”

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