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16 December 2016
Early humans began cooking over 800,000 years ago

Early humans may have started cooking their food at some point between 800,000 and 1.2 million years ago, according to scientists who have found the earliest evidence of raw food eaten by our prehistoric ancestors.
     Scientists from the University of York and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona analyzed dental plaque taken from 1.2-million-year-old hominin remains recovered in northern Spain's Sima del Elefante.
     Microfossils in the plaque suggest that the hominin ate raw animal tissue, uncooked grasses, pollen from a species of pine, and insects. The researchers also found possible fragments of a toothpick. All of the materials were uncharred, and there was no microcharcoal, or evidence that the individual had inhaled any smoke, in the sample.
     The timing of the earliest use of fire for cooking is hotly contested, with some researchers arguing habitual use started around 1.8 million years ago while others suggest it was as late as 300,000-400,000 years ago.
     So far, the earliest known evidence for the use of fire in Europe is 800,000 years old and was found at Cueva Negra, in southeastern Spain. A site of similar age has been found in Israel, and possible sites for very early use of fire have been found in Africa. Taken together, the evidence suggests that human ancestors began using fire and cooking food sometime between 1.2 million and 800,000 years ago.
     "Obtaining evidence for any aspect of hominin life at this extremely early date is very challenging," said Karen Hardy, from the University of York in the UK. "Here, we have been able to demonstrate that these earliest Europeans understood and exploited their forested environment to obtain a balanced diet 1.2 million years ago, by eating a range of different foods and combining starchy plant food with meat," said Hardy.
     "Cooked food provides greater energy, and cooking may be linked to the rapid increases in brain size that occurred from 800,000 years ago onwards," he said. "It also correlates well with previous research hypothesising that the timing of cooking is linked to the development of salivary amylase, needed to process cooked starchy food," Hardy added. "Starchy food was an essential element in facilitating brain development, and contrary to popular belief about the 'Paleodiet', the role of starchy food in the Palaeolithic diet was significant," he concluded.

Edited from Deccan Herald (15 December 2016)

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