It’s no secret that hunting and fishing played a critical role in the early evolution of mankind. A new study out of the Middle East shows angling may have been even more important than scientists previously understood. The study, which was published on November 14 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, concludes that human ancestors have been fishing, and cooking their catch, for 780,000 to 600,000 years longer than previously thought.
Prior to this finding, the earliest definitive evidence of hominins using fire to cook fish was traced to 170,000 years ago. Scientists thought Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were the only hominins that fished. But the recent 16-year study at an archaeological site called Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Northern Israel uncovered evidence that Homo erectus—an ancient common ancestor—may have fished and cooked fish as well.
Modern humans have populated the earth for the past 300,000 years. Homo erectus, the second in the bipedal line and the longest-lasting Homo, wandered Africa, Europe, and Asia for nearly 1.8 million years. The species went extinct 110,000 years ago. At the 780,000-year-old Gesher Benot Ya’aqov settlement near the Jordan River, an international team of researchers discovered multiple hearth-like sites with many layers of fish teeth. The teeth came from tens of thousands of six-foot-long, carp-like fish that archaeologists call “barbs.” The strata in the archeological site revealed that homo erectus hunter-gatherers had established settlements there for tens of thousands of years. And the mounds of fish teeth showed that they caught plenty of the now-extinct barbs throughout that period.
X-ray diffraction of those teeth showed microscopic changes in crystal formations—indicating that the fish were slow-cooked over low heat. According to the study’s authors, this is evidence of the first known act of cooking fish or game. “This [shows] the huge importance of fish in the life of prehistoric humans, for their diet and economic stability,” wrote the study’s main author Irit Zohar. “These new findings demonstrate not only the importance of freshwater habitats and the fish they contained for the sustenance of prehistoric man, but also illustrate prehistoric humans’ ability to control fire in order to cook food, and their understanding of the benefits of cooking fish before eating it.”
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The study’s authors say that eating cooked fish could have been a milestone moment in the evolution of humankind’s cognitive abilities. They contend that, over time, our ancestor’s brains grew larger, their capacity for high-level reasoning increased—and the nutrients available in animal-based foods played a central role in this evolution. If that’s true, catching and eating fish is an integral part of what makes us human, and we have some very ancient ancestors to thank for it.