Cooking a Nearly Two Million Year Old Practice

Recent excavations and analysis of the molars of Homo erectus and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis suggest that human ancestors began cooking much earlier than originally thought. The introduction of culturally treating food (specifically cooking) directly correlates to smaller molar size in human beings (as thick enamel and wide chewing surfaces are no longer necessary).

Paleoanthropologists have suggested that the the decreasing size of molars in proto-humans suggests that our ancestors were cooking as early as two million years ago. The finding, however, is not without controversy as the connection with cooking also suggest other sophisticated tool use – specifically the control of fire.

“There isn’t a lot of good evidence for fire. That’s kind of controversial,” Organ said. “That’s one of the holes in this cooking hypothesis. If those species right then were cooking you should find evidence for hearths and fire pits.” (MSNBC)

These new findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If you do not have a subscription to this esteemed article, you can read more about it in this article of Scientific American or at MSNBC.

3 thoughts on “Cooking a Nearly Two Million Year Old Practice

  1. Jim Wheeler

    About seven decades ago I vaguely recall the occasional reference to “when cavemen discovered fire”. I pondered that with my child mind. Hmm. Did some “caveman” suddenly get a bright idea to strike a spark and, voila! Fire!

    It didn’t take too many years for me to see the common sense fallacy in the notion. Forrest fires are a common part of nature because of lightning. There was no “discovery” required, except for how to use it of course. But, given the 3.5 million years or so since A. Aferensis roamed Africa, there was plenty of time for experimentation, including haphazardly retrieving animals caught in forest or grass fires. Frankly, I would be amazed if cooking had been a recent discovery.

    In addition to making food softer and more digestable it occurs to me too that cooking should have two additional evolutionary benefits: it kills germs in food and then preserves it. Cooked meat lasts far longer than raw and smoked meats can last many months, a valuable knowledge to have in times of shortages. And if knowledge of cooking were a function of increased brain capacity, then perhaps we owe some our smarts to learning to cook. Or is cooking a function of brain capacity? Which came first, the chicken . . . ?

    1. Jennifer Lockett Post author

      Some excellent points Jim. This is why archaeologists make the distinction between the ‘use’ of fire and the ‘control’ of fire – one requires greater brain power and sophistication. I personally am of the opinion that the control of fire has been around for a very long time along with other tool use that we like to reserve for modern Homo sapiens (instead of our proto-human ancestors). I think we have been pretty smart for a long time – watching the behavior of Chimpanzees and Gorillas will solidify that! And you’re right that cooked/smoked meats are healthier and can store longer. There are arguments that the bacteria in our gut changed as well with the invention of cooking – we no longer needed to be able to maintain the ability of digesting raw meat.
      I’m glad to see I”m not the only ones who finds those kinds of conclusions obvious. Great minds I guess 😉

  2. Michael Hulshof-Schmidt

    Great article! Not surprising that early Homo Sapiens would be cooking. I love that you use the distinction of using fire and controlling fire. From the limited research I have done, they did take advantage of fire from lightening strikes, but lacked the ability to manipulate fire until as recently as 50,000 years ago. I suspect we will learn more on this issue as well.


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