A study conducted by the University of York alongside the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona has revealed what our earliest ancestors ate and how they prepared it.
Researchers were able to determine what our very distant relatives were eating 1.2 million years ago by studying plaque found on the teeth of a hominin body discovered in 2007. The body was discovered in Sima del Elefante Spain by the Atapuerca Research Team.
Found in the plaque were raw animal tissues, uncooked starch, pollen which is normally found in a particular type of pine tree, insect remains, and even traces of what would be considered a toothpick.
The researchers also noticed that none of the food particles indicate that there was any attempt made to cook the food, which means they lived off a diet consisting of raw plants and meats.
“These results are very exciting, as they highlight the potential of dental calculus to store dietary and environmental information from deep in the human evolutionary past. It is also interesting to see that pollen remains are preserved often in better conditions than in the soil of the same age. Overall this is a very positive step in the discipline, in terms of preservation of material in the calculus matrix,” says Dr. Anita Radini, a PhD student at the University of York.
There is currently much debate about when our ancestors started cooking their food, some say it was as far back as 1.8 million years, while others are saying it’s as early as only 300-400 thousand years ago. The most definite proof of fire in early human life dates back to 800 thousand years ago in Spain, although some evidence has been found that fires were used in even earlier life in Africa.
“Obtaining evidence for any aspect of hominin life at this extremely early date is very challenging. 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,” says Dr. Karen Hardy, who is the lead author and Honorary Research Associate at the University of York and ICREA Research Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
But as humans dispersed across Europe it appears that any knowledge of fire was lost. Using all of this, researchers are now able to assume that food was first cooked as early as 1.2-million years ago. All this new information is important in helping scientists understand when brains began developing into what they are today.
“This new timeline has significant implications in helping us to understand this period of human evolution – 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,” says Hardy.