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Scholars and scientists long believed that people started eating fish "only" 40,000 years ago, but new archaeological findings have revealed that hundreds of thousands of years before that, human ancestors were catching and consuming fish in the Hula Valley, which is known even today for its fish ponds - albeit artificial ones.

Giant fish inhabited Lake Hula 750,000 years ago, and the hominids who lived there - believed to be the first species ever to create fire intentionally - grilled and ate them, Hebrew University researchers have concluded. The evidence was found at archaeological digs near the Bnot Yaakov Bridge over the Jordan River.

Laboratory studies in Israel and abroad have confirmed that the hominids caught catfish, tilapia and carp that were more than a meter long.

The team of archeologists was led by Hebrew U. Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar and assisted by Prof. Mordechai Kislev of the Bar-Ilan University life sciences department.

The findings were published this weekend in the journal "Science."

They found many tools to light fires and more, including basalt tools for cutting meat and cracking nuts. This led to the conclusion that nearly 1 million years ago, the ancestors of humans were living in communities comparable to modern societies - half a million years earlier than archaeologists had thought until now.

The findings were well preserved for 750,000 years, says Goren-Inbar, because the damp conditions prevented the formation of bacteria. The community inhabited a site about three kilometers square.

"We found many fish skulls, teeth, fins and bones, as well as crab claws, and not far away the remains of fires," she says. "With the stone tools and the other findings, we understand that the community was fully aware of the space they inhabited. They were familiar with the plants and animals, they knew the properties of the stone, and they were capable of planning long-term moves. Ancient man was far more advanced than we had thought," Goren-Inbar told Haaretz.

The researchers concluded that the inhabitants of the site roasted their nuts before cracking them open and eating them. The nutcrackers consisted of two stones, one with a hollow to hold the nuts and another to crack the shell.

No hominid remains were found, however. Researchers are not sure what they looked like, but some believe they were of the species homo erectus, which lived in Africa 1.8 million years ago and migrated outward.

"The homo erectus looked a lot like we do today, except his legs were shorter, his arms were longer like an ape's, his brow was heavy, and his brain volume was 900 cubic centimeters. Human brains are on average 1,400 cubic centimeters," says Dr. Gonen Sharon of the Hebrew University, who was involved in the research.

Despite the findings, the scientists still have no idea where the Hula community lived, since the site has no caves or other natural shelters.