Archaic Humans May Have Cooked 1.7 Million Years Ago – in Hot Springs

More than a million years before we discovered ‘fire,’ meat-eating archaic humans living in Olduvai Gorge were in proximity of hot springs and may have discovered the wonders of boiling their prey

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Snow monkeys bathe in the hot spring of Jigokudani Monkey Park in the mountains in Yamanouchi town, Nagano, Japan, January 27, 2011.
Primates appreciating hot springs: Snow monkeys bathing in the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, JapanCredit: Hiro Komae / AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Could insulting wannabe cooks have been a thing almost two million years before Gordon Ramsay? Ancient hominins dwelling in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania 1.7 million years ago were living in the vicinity of hot springs which they theoretically could have used to poach their prey, Ainara Sistiaga of MIT and colleagues suggest in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

No, there is no evidence that they did cook, let alone vociferate about each other’s culinary prowess. It isn’t that the researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Alcalá in Spain found a smoking spear a million years before the hominins learned to control fire. The facts here are that hominins were in Olduvai Gorge 1.7 million years ago and now a study of the paleo-environment has concluded that so were hot springs.

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Molecular fossil biomarkers typical of hot springs at Yellowstone and similar spots show that the area where these proto-humans lived was geothermally frisky, they explain.

Prehistoric use of terrestrial hydrothermal vents as a resource hasn’t been postulated before, but here the researchers realized they had “concrete evidence for the possibility that people were using hydrothermal environments as a resource, where animals would’ve been gathering, and where the potential to cook was available,” co-author Roger Summons of MIT told Science. 

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, September 7, 2009.
Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, September 7, 2009.Credit: Noel Feans

It may sound implausible to drop a dead antelope into a geothermal spring and call it dinner. I can attest that it’s doable, having during my inquisitive childhood cooked eggs in a hot spring in Zambia just to see if I could and what they would be like. Answer: They became hard-boiled and my father wouldn’t let me eat them.

There is no definition of “hot spring” other than the vague guideline that the water is hotter than you, i.e., above about 98 degrees Fahrenheit or 36.7 degrees Celsius. Hot springs are heated by the mantle and a good rule of thumb is that the nearer they are to magma, the hotter the water. Some are pleasantly warm and some are literally boiling; some merely seep and some are virtual rivers.

So we can’t be sure about the temperature of the ancient Olduvai springs. But we can be quite sure that its inhabitants ate meat.

Current thinking is that the earliest ancestors in the simian line were appealing ratty little vegans, possibly even fructivores. These proto-primates, known as Purgatorius, lived in trees as long as 66 million years ago, so yes, its line survived the great extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. Early monkeys and apes were also apparently vegetarian, likely augmenting their diet with the odd insect or lizard.

Cast of a hominin skull from Olduvai, Springfield, U.S., December 19, 2012.
Cast of a hominin skull from Olduvai, Springfield, U.S., December 19, 2012.Credit: Daderot

But by about 2.6 million to 2.5 million years ago, at least the australopithecines in Africa had developed the metabolic ability to properly digest meat. Omnivory, as characterizes humans and the pig for instance, would have conferred multiple advantages.

Why the hominins expanded to animal protein is debatable, but climate change may have forced the issue. Separate studies of the paleo-environment at Olduvai concluded that it was undergoing a general aridification trend and declining rainfall would have rendered the land less fruitful – sediment from this

A taste revelation?

Clearly the hominins had the tools to hunt. Crude stone hammers go back as much as 3.3 million years; by 1.7 million years Acheulean-type tools were being made, with edges suitable for butchering.

The early hominins living in Olduvai aren’t likely to have realized that raw meat was giving them parasites and sundry infections. But raw meat is tough. Maybe one day an animal fell into a hot spring, a hominin scavenger fished it out and realized it was easier to chew. It may even have been a taste revelation. Fact is, the sulfurous aroma in the vicinity of hot springs seems unappetizing, but that’s by our modern mores. Raw carcass may not smell and taste much better.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, U.S., June 22, 2006.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, U.S., June 22, 2006.Credit: Yellowstone National Park

And if we’re postulating that the Olduvai hominins dipped their duikers in the hot springs to cook, maybe they boiled plants too, such as tubers. The team points out that thermal springs have been associated with hominin sites elsewhere too, which could support the notion of pre-fire cooking.

Ultimately the ability to cook and extract more nutrients from their resources may have even given the Olduvai hominins an evolutionary advantage, the team posits.

Over a million years later, the Homo line would learn to exploit incidental fires and later, to control it, i.e., they could ignite them at will. It’s disputed whether Neanderthals achieved control of fire or just evinced an advanced ability to exploit it; some are convinced they could spark and douse fire at will, helping themselves to stay warm in the cold European clime, and cook too. But along the line, fire was controlled. And whenever and wherever it happened, there was probably one demanding early human complaining about the food.