Although cooking is regarded as a key element in the evolutionary success of the genus Homo, impacting various biological and social aspects, when intentional cooking first began remains unknown. The early Middle Pleistocene site of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel (marine isotope stages 18–20; ~0.78 million years ago), has preserved evidence of hearth-related hominin activities and large numbers of freshwater fish remains (>40,000). A taphonomic study and isotopic analyses revealed significant differences between the characteristics of the fish bone assemblages recovered in eight sequential archaeological horizons of Area B (Layer II-6 levels 1–7) and natural fish bone assemblages (identified in Area A). Gesher Benot Ya’aqov archaeological horizons II-6 L1–7 exhibited low fish species richness, with a clear preference for two species of large Cyprinidae (Luciobarbus longiceps and Carasobarbus canis) and the almost total absence of fish bones in contrast to the richness of pharyngeal teeth (>95%). Most of the pharyngeal teeth recovered in archaeological horizons II-6 L1–7 were spatially associated with ‘phantom’ hearths (clusters of burnt flint microartifacts). Size–strain analysis using X-ray powder diffraction provided evidence that these teeth had been exposed to low temperature (<500 °C), suggesting, together with the archaeological and taphonomic data, that the fish from the archaeological horizons of Area B had been cooked and consumed on site. This is the earliest evidence of cooking by hominins.
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