An international team of researchers led by the University of Bristol has discovered the earliest evidence that humans used to process plants for food. The research shows that humans used to cook since the dawn of time.
The study, published, Dec. 19, in the journal Nature Plants, sheds new light on people's dietary habits and the evolution of civilization since ancient times.
Cooking — A 10,000-Year-Old Activity
The evidence was discovered at two different sites in the Libyan Sahara desert, and it suggests that humans processed plants way before we believed. The evidence of cooking places this habit far back, approximately 10,000 years ago, and it is the earliest proof we have about early humans processing food.
Among these plants, some were leafy and grew on land, while others were aquatic. Back then, the area was lush and green, and it had plenty of lakes, as well as crisscrossed rivers, which is consistent with the proof the researchers found.
"Until now, the importance of plants in prehistoric diets has been under-recognized but this work clearly demonstrates the importance of plants as a reliable dietary resource," noted Dr. Julie Dunne from University of Bristol's School of Chemistry, lead author of the research.
Food Processing — Early Sign Of Civilization
Cooking is believed to be an essential moment in the evolution of humankind, much like fire or electricity. This prehistoric evidence shows that the dynamics of early civilizations were different than what we imagine, and that — while there were no skyscrapers back then — habitants had a lifestyle very similar to what we define as civilized.
Prior to this study, the earliest proof of people consuming plants back in ancient times consisted of remains of plants, grinding stones and even a piece of art depicting a person picking plants. However, never before has there been proof of early humans actually cooking the plants they consumed.
Agriculture was developed around 10,000 years back, as well, which places the habit of cooking plants at about the same moment in history, if not earlier than the time we started cultivating the plants we eat. Before that, people hunted and gathered their food. There is also consistent proof that our ancestors used to fish.
Although few and scattered, there still exist tribes of hunter-gatherers today in parts of the world. However, scientists and evolutionary nutritionists have reasons to believe that our meat-based diets are not what we evolved to eat, but the product of our comfort.
"A lot of people believe there is a discordance between what we eat today and what our ancestors evolved to eat," noted paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas.
The idea behind this principle is that the caveman diets were the way our ancestors used to eat during the Paleolithic period lasting from approximately 2.6 million years ago to the start of agriculture.
However, eating meat has transformed us into a more intelligent being, as meat is believed to have contributed to the evolution of our ancestors, as it helped develop our brains the way we have them today. Since the prehistoric times, the mass of our brains has increased three times its initial volume and, along with it, we created new brain structures that helped us process information.