The origin of cooking

Today’s question comes from a Stuart Worley, submitted via the feedback form.

Could you point me to (or discuss yourself) an explanation of how complex (TBD) cooking techniques “evolved”?

In short, how did we get from eating single substances to, “gee, I think I’ll put all of these various, unrelated items into a big pot and invent a chocolate cake.” 😉

I’m awfully sorry but I’m just going to have to bluntly say I cannot, nor can anyone else to my knowledge. Whilst we are able to look into the diet of past peoples with exceeding accuracy we can’t be very precise about what we find.

For example, the sea contains a unique ratio of isotopes which is transferred to sea creatures. If people consume seafood for an extended period of time then the ratio of isotopes in their body also begins to shift. We can then look a their bones (after they’re dead of course), identify they have a ratio consistent with seafood and thus conclude with great certainty they ate a lot of seafood.

However, we have no way of being precise about the seafood they ate. It might be some fish they speared and roasted or a complex dish of muscles in white wine sauce. Individual meals aren’t detectable by the general evidence we are able to gather about the past and the only way to detect them is to find the physical remnants of actual dishes themselves.

Of course, these dishes don’t preserve well/have been eaten. Often archaeologists have developed a clever work-around for the “lack of evidence” problem but with this issue they seem to be fairly stumped.

I need some kind of stock photo for "all the evidence has decomposed." Suggestions in the comments please.

Sometimes we do get tantalising glimpses into the individual meals of the past but these are very small fragments and it is impossible to extrapolate to the cooking ability of the people involved.

As a case in point take the rather interesting discovery of microfossils in a neanderthal mouth. These showed that, contrary to popular opinion,Homo neanderthalensis not only consumed plants but also cooked them as well. However given these are microfossils we can’t really work out what the entire meal was and thus how complex it is. Indeed, given these microfossils accumulate over time it is likely this isn’t even a single meal but the sum total of a lifetime’s eating.

We can try and infer the cooking ability of individuals based upon the technology they had access too. If we assume that what is needed for complex cooking are containers/dishes and fire then that means it developed after modern humans as we are the only species known to produce containers.

Go humans!

However, that’s only containers which have preserved. For all we know there might be earlier examples that were simply made of wood or another material that would decay. So there could be an earlier date for the technology for complex cooking to exist but since the existence of Homo sapiens is all we can say for sure.

Which still gives us a fairly broad range. However, a range of more complete evidence tells us that complex cooking had developed by the same time cities had ~7,000 years ago. So we know at least simple cooking happened with the afore mentioned neanderthals ~36 kya and complex had started for sure by this point.

But the exact when, where or how is unknown. Sorry about that, I hope you found the post interesting anyway.


For more information I recommend “Archaeology: theories, methods and practice” by Renfrew and Bahn which contains an excellent chapter on determining past diets.

And keep the questions coming! Hopefully next week there’ll be one I can actually answer.

5 thoughts on “The origin of cooking

    • The archaeological record has been teasing us about early fire for some time, with a lot of hints that it happened but nothing as definitive as we would like. On balance therefore I suspect this find is more of the same, although until I am able to read the paper I only have my suspicions. It might well be a find that finally confirms there was early fire for all I know!

      However, one of the things that can be said for sure is that this doesn’t seem to have had much impact on brain evolution. Many newspaper articles are attempting to spice up the discovery with references to the idea that hominins were able to sacrifice some digestive power because cooking did it for them, allowing their brains to grow.

      This is a variant of the “expensive tissue hypothesis” an idea which has been rather extensively refuted, as I’ve discussed before (

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