When Did People Start Cooking With Fire?

The Origins of Cooking with Fire
The Origins of Cooking with Fire

The Established Dogma

The exact origins of cooking are not known, but early humans did, at some time in the distant past, master fire and begin using it for food preparation. We know from archaeological evidence that humans have been cooking on fire since the Stone Age. However, the Stone Age was a long period of time that lasted for about 3.5 million years and ended around 4000-2000 BCE.

It is thought that the first humans started cooking by throwing a piece of something raw in a fire 250,000 years ago. But, the widely accepted evidence for early human fire use was discovered in northern China and dates back 400,000 years ago.

Other evidence for the habitual use of fire, however, comes from Qessem Caves in Israel dating to 400,000 to 300,000 years ago and includes repeated use of a single hearth for cooking meat, linking the first controlled use of fire with Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals.

Controversy

The timeline for early fire-cooking uses is highly controversial, with some researchers suggesting that habitual use began about 1.8 million years ago, and others suggesting that it was more recent, at around 300,000-400,000 years ago.

Timeline of Human Evolution - Hominin Timeline
Timeline of Human Evolution

New Evidence of Cooking With Fire

Archaeological sites exist that show evidence for Homo erectus controlling fires as far back as 1.5 million years ago, resulting in a reddening of the sediments which could have come from the heating of fire at 200-400 degrees Celsius. These fires, and charred bones, were likely burned by Homo erectus, a species thought to be an ancestor or kin of humans.

Evidence for this comes from a number of archaeological sites in East Africa, such as Chesowanja, near Lake Baringo, Koobi Fora, and Oloresailie, Kenya

early fire cooking uses neanderthals
Early Fire Cooking Uses Neanderthals

The strongest evidence comes from the Falls of Kalambo in Zambia, where a number of things related to the human use of fire were found, such as burnt wood, charcoal, burnt areas, charcoalized stems and plants, and wooden tools, all possibly tempered by fire.

At another site, this one called Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, scientists found evidence of humans using fire around 1 million years ago, according to a 2012 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first conclusive evidence for fire outside of Africa was at Cueva Negra, Spain, 800,000 years ago, and Gesher Benot Yaaqov, Israel, shortly after.

Cueva Negra (Black Cave) is an archaeological site located in Caravaca de la Cruz, a small Spanish town located in the southern-eastern region of Murcia. Analysis indicates the fragments were heated between 400˚C to 600˚C. Estimated dating of the charred remains based on the surrounding layers of rock show evidence of a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field around 780,000 years ago.

In Israel, evidence for controlled use of fire outside is from the Lower Paleolithic site Gesher Benot Yaaqov in Israel, where burnt wood and seeds have been recovered from the site, which has been dated to be 790,000 years old.

ancient signs of fire useat Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel
Ancient signs of fire use at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov in Israel

If cited correctly, these would surpass the first widely accepted evidence for early human fire use, discovered in northern China and dating back 400,000 years.

Conclusion

The exact origins of cooking with fire are not known, but early humans did, at some time in the distant past, master fire and begin using it for food preparation.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that the development of fire technology occurred somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million years ago, providing a new timeline of when the first humans in Europe began cooking.

The physical evidence suggests early humans did not make much change to controlling and using fire to prepare food over hundreds of thousands of years, which is rather surprising given they developed rather sophisticated tools to hunt around that time, and created some of the first examples of cave art around 64,000 years ago.

Clearly, controlled fire use for cooking foods was a hugely important element of the biological and social evolution of early humans, whether that started at 400,000 years or two million years ago.

Cooking helped to create the community-oriented society we have today. People were able to gather together to prepare food safely because of the discovery of fire. Fire allowed us to stay warm and safe during cold nights. Cooking also made it possible for us to share food with others. As a result, we became more social and started to care about each other.

Origin of cooking with fire
Origin of cooking with fire

7 thoughts on “When Did People Start Cooking With Fire?

    1. It is a very curious fact indeed.
      I was doing research for something else and I got sidetracked and that’s how this post came about.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      1. That’s great. I always keep a notebook just for notes when stuff come up I want to dig deeper into but don’t have the time that direct moment, so I never forget!

  1. Indeed, a very interesting article. Nowadays we enjoy so many good meals and we can’t even imagine how long the process was to start cooking with fire. Liked it.

  2. Very interesting article. I can’t even imagine how you can live without fire. Perhaps earlier it was more expedient to dry the meat for longer storage. Perhaps the fire played a protective and warming role.

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