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How Humans Discovered Cooking Before Harnessing Fire

When the ancestors of modern humans left the Serengeti 2-3 million years ago, they mostly went east, first into present-day Tanzania and Kenya where they discovered cooking, and then later up the coast, into Ethiopia, Egypt, and beyond. Granted, this theory – this narrative – is pure intuition, on my part. But it’s as good as anything going – seriously. Archaeological evidence remains perpetually incomplete, with estimations of fire taming ranging from South Africa to China, from 1 to 1.7 million years ago, and based largely on findings – burnt sediment or burnt animal bone – that could just as easily have been the work of volcanoes, lightning, or something else inconceivable today. Rather, take a look at the map above. Keep an open mind, and let that mind wander, naturally, as our ancestral apes wandered... Now see if you can follow:

First, free yourself of this blinding notion that the discovery of fire had to pre-date the discovery of cooking. Here’s what happened. Early hominids developed into bipeds in the plains of the Serengeti. Those that ventured east – away from the depths of the jungle and towards the sun – would have run into the two largest mountains in Africa. To the southeast, they would have first glimpsed Mount Kilimanjaro; to the northeast, not far from present-day Nairobi, they would have settled before Mount Kenya. It was here, living in the mountains, in the highest altitudes they had ever reached in their evolutionary journey, that our ancestors were first introduced to the thermal extremes of extreme heat during the day and an extreme temperature drop in the evenings. For a million years, they had already been using stone tools and hunting in packs, eating raw meat. But now, in the mountains, they discovered that raw meat on a sun-baked stone would smoke... and smell. And they discovered that certain stones would get hotter than others, and certain meats cook faster than others, or smell differently, and taste differently, and over time, smell better, and taste better. There was no fire involved. Only stone surface, hominid, and carcass. And then on the eighth day, the brain grew and grew.

And the tribes they grew and grew. And these anomalous creatures they moved out of the valley, east of Eden, like the John Steinbeck novel, for the coast, where generally, they have preferred to settle ever since.




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