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Over the course of my life I have seen several large, dangerous fires. Unfortunate animals often perish in these. Especially slower ones, such as turtles. Surely, it can not have been difficult for humans to invent cooking in the broad sense - that is heating food by fire - over the course of a few millennia.

Now, boiling food should be an entirely different question, a mental leap that I don't see as obvious at all, nor do I think it likely to occur by accident. So, what are some early archeological clues for humans doing it?

I realise, it might be difficult to find archeological evidence, but implements, such as pots, spoons or tripods for placing such on the fire are probably very old. One text that made me think archaeologists might know much more than I imagined, was Native American Cookery. Said article contains the passage:

Boiling could be done in skin or bark utensils, or even on a clay bed, by filling with cold water, dropping in the meat and then heating with hot stones taken from a near-by fire. It was safer to boil in a bark dish than in a clay pot, because of the ease with which the pot was broken. One hot stone gives off a great deal of heat, and a dozen or so used in this manner soon finishes the task of hot-stone cooking.

If this applies generally, or many people used their kettles for pot roasting, we might have great difficulty finding these implements or establishing their use. Yet, shapes, materials or grease traces, might tell archaeologists much more than they would tell me.

Even if our estimates have to be very conservative, I am still interested.

  • You mean cooking in the narrow sense, boiling with water -- or do you include roasting (meat)? – DevSolar Aug 11 '16 at 12:07
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    @DevSolar I mean boiling. I tried to stress that in the title. How should I edit it? – Ludi Aug 11 '16 at 12:09
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    Never mind. (English is not my first language, I just wanted to be sure.) We're looking at stone age here; cooking pots were earthen well into the bronze age as metal pots were too rare / expensive. Trying to track down individual findings. – DevSolar Aug 11 '16 at 12:13
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    We know the indigenous Australians used bushfires partly as a method for land management, partly to cook animals, and partly for other easons. This caused the extinction of Australian megafuna around 40000 years ago. I'd say that puts a lower bound on the use of fire. As for when that evolved to boiling/broiling food - I wouldn't know - but it's a clue. – Anaryl Aug 11 '16 at 17:38
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    ... rereading my answer to the inuit question, I would ask what kind of food benefits most from boiling - I think grains (to make gruel) and rice, beets, potatoes and their wild ancestors. So one stab at answering this question would be to look at prehistoric cultures that ate these foods and see if any archeological evidence survived of the cookware. – mart Feb 7 '18 at 15:30
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I can't speak to boiling in particular, but if its just evidence you're asking about, there's evidence of Homo Erectus (a human ancestor) using controlled fires about a million years ago.

Archeologists are actually involved in a raging debate about human cooking right now. The oldest faction argues based on artifacts and skeletal features like denature that it was an innate behavior of Homo Erectus, which would make it about 1.8 million years old. The youngest faction argues that man certainly "harvested" wildfires when available, but didn't master the ability to create fires at will until only about 12,000 years ago (which would make it a part of the Neolithic Revolution).

  • I'm unaware of any finds of isolated primitive hunter-gatherers incapable of making fires, so I'm a bit skeptical of that 12,000 year figure. But even if true, we are pretty sure humans cooked before then when fire was available. – T.E.D. Aug 11 '16 at 16:09
  • The question is about cooking in particular. Not making a fire, not roasting meat on a spit, but actually putting foodstuffs in hot water... – DevSolar Aug 11 '16 at 16:18
  • I'd find the 12,000 figure very dubious indeed. This report describes some practices of using fire to cook animals as part of a giant trap google.com.au/… – Anaryl Aug 11 '16 at 17:57
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire-stick_farming also provides some information on the Aborigines using fire for land management and farming. – Anaryl Aug 11 '16 at 17:59
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    What about deposits of charcoal/ashes? That seems to be the way these researchers identified remains of campfires. discovermagazine.com/2013/may/… – Anaryl Aug 11 '16 at 18:06
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Here are a few points I got from a book on the Ancient Indus, by Rita P. Wright.

  1. Using a pot to boil is preferred, as the contents can be maintained at boiling point for long periods, making the food more palatable.
  2. Before this, people used stone boiling. A variety of containers could be used: stone bowls, pottery, baskets lined with bitumen. The stones would be heated in a fire, then dropped into the container with water and the food to be boiled.

Archaeologically, you can look for burnt stones. Here for example is a mention from a site from around 25K BP: http://prfdec.natur.cuni.cz/~kfggsekr/rggg/pdf/Svoboda_etal_09.pdf

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Cooking requires pots, and thus is linked to the invention of pottery.

The oldest pot I could find reference to, discovered in the chinese province Jiangxi, dates back to about 20,000 BCE (late stone age), which would mean pottery / cooking predates agriculture by some margin.

Note that the linked articles (dated 2012) state the Jiangxi finding to be noteworthy, because previous findings date to about 10,000 BCE, i.e. after the invention of agriculture.

  • @Ludi: Hm. Your edit regarding non-pottery cooking techniques party invalidates the assumption I made in the first line. Yet still, I think pottery at least establishes an upper margin to estimates. I'll let the answer stand as-is, interested in earlier findings myself. Good question. – DevSolar Aug 11 '16 at 12:29
  • Leather cauldrons. – Samuel Russell Oct 17 '18 at 12:18
  • @SamuelRussell: Errr... what was the intended message of that comment? Yes, leather cauldrons existed.... and? – DevSolar Oct 17 '18 at 12:23
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    @DevSolar Maybe that you don't need pottery to boil food? You can make soup by digging a hole, covering the walls with skins (leather), filling it with water and then throwing a hot stone in it. – Alberto Yagos Oct 17 '18 at 13:46
  • leather cauldrons could boil food without pottery. – Samuel Russell Oct 17 '18 at 13:47

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