790,000 years ago. The archaeological evidence leaves no doubt that the control of fire is an ancient tradition.
A site dated with high accuracy is Gesher Benot Ya’akov in Israel, near the Jordan River. There, 790,000 years ago, Homo erectus, an ancestor of Homo sapiens, was using tools and toasting olive, barley and grape seeds while heating wood and stones.
400,000 years ago in Schöningen, Germany, Homo heidelbergensis, a more robust version of Homo sapiens, left traces of having hunted 22 horses, butchered them and used fire to cook the meat. By the way, this place is the oldest site offering evidence of group hunting.
In England, in a site called Beeches Pit inhabited by Homo heidelbergensis 400,000 years ago, there is proof that they used a hearth 3 feet in diameter.
A recent and innovative theory, based on this evidence, argues that learning to cook using fire allowed hominids to become modern humans. The benefits of cooking are:
- An increase in the intake of calories.
- A reduction in the time used for eating and the gain of hours left for other activities.
- A decrease in the size of the guts as food is digested, absorbed and assimilated with less cost. The result is an upright position since a smaller stomach takes up less space in the womb.
- An increase of energy obtained from the same raw material. This allows for a larger brain, because the brain consumes an enormous amount of energy.
- Time to socialize, because a campfire at night allowed eating in groups while protecting from predators.
- Division of labor by gender: male hunters and female gatherers and cooks.