National Geographic

Gona: First Kitchen

Near Gona, Ethiopia, 10°58'1'' N, 40°21'38'' E

Gona is the scene of a long-forgotten leap in human consciousness.

A monument should be erected at this spot in the dun badlands of Afar country: a tall shrine, made exclusively of stone, to honor the colossal idea that unfolded here 2.6 million years ago. The world’s potentates could be invited to the inauguration. A new international holiday—called Gona Day, perhaps—might justifiably be added to the crowded global calendar of worthy human events. But VIP status at any such ceremony could only be reserved for the chefs of the planet—the sushi artists of Osaka, the Paris masters of steak tartare, and, in particular, the carvers of beef in Argentina and Texas. I imagine them doffing their toques and raising their knives and cleavers, saluting the location of the oldest stone tools in the world. They would bow to honor their gastronomic Eves, their culinary Adams.

The Rift Valley of Africa is littered with millions of artifacts from the basement of time. The majority of these implements (or garbage heaps) appear to be linked to one purpose: food preparation. Gona, then, is humankind’s original kitchen. Its primordial chopping and cutting tools, whose simple design, called Oldowan, overcame our ancestors’ competitive disadvantages—weak bodies and small teeth designed mostly to chew plants—sliced open the concentrated, animal energy of entire ecosystems: a revolution.

“The first toolmakers began making stone artifacts intentionally by knocking off cobbles to produce sharp-edged flakes used for cutting up animal carcasses,” says Sileshi Semaw, an Ethiopian scientist at the National Research Center for Human Evolution, in Spain, who discovered the Gona site. “The stone tools were mainly used for processing animal carcasses for meat and for breaking bones for marrow.”

Gona’s blades were probably not used to kill the archaic antelopes whose hacked, fossilized bones lay scattered there. The first toolmakers were not brave hunters. Instead, the wily, squinting hominids who knocked two rocks together at Gona, announcing their conquest of the world, were likely “power scavengers.” They spooked hyenas and wild dogs from their kills. They ate the work of others.

We have walked for weeks, Ahmed Alema Hessan and I, atop discarded Stone Age cutlery—the litter of ancient meat-gorged bacchanals in a landscape often equated, today, with hunger.

We yo-yoed for miles across waterless gullies to Gona. Its silence rang. We toppled, exhausted, devastated by the heat, under the spiky shade of an acacia. Yet even there we sizzled. And couldn’t linger. There were reports of armed Issa nearby, rustling Afar cattle.

“Let’s go, man,” Alema said, kicking my boots.

History is a mirror. The revolution continues.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Gullies wrinkle the earth near Gona. In this area the first toolmakers scavenged and cut up animal carcasses. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Did Fire Make Us Human? The Raw Truth about Cooking

Wrangham1

Richard Wrangham

Most people who study human origins agree that the invention of stone tools around 2.6 million years ago was a seminal crossroad in human evolution. Animal butchery allowed hominids to tap nutrient-rich sources of food such as internal organs and marrow. Richer energy inputs may have nurtured our big brains. But one researcher, Richard Wrangham of Harvard, thinks the more important breakthrough came with the power of the hearth—cooking. Wrangham’s stance is controversial, because solid evidence for controlled fire is relatively recent: only about 400,000 years old. Below, Wrangham warms to his topic.

Paul Salopek
I walked through the remote Gona site in Ethiopia, which at 2.6 million years old is considered to be the oldest stone tool site in existence. The tools scattered across the desert there—hand axes, picks—were used mostly to butcher large animals, such as buffalo, which were presumably eaten raw. What do we know about the amount of raw meat in our prehistoric diets? We have canines for a reason, right?

Richard Wrangham
Cut marks in the meat-bearing regions of fossil bones confirm that a species of hominid was eating meat from large animals more than two million years ago. Very likely the meat-eaters were ancestors of ours; some of the first ones to have regularly used stone tools were probably the “intermediate” species Homo/Australopithecus habilis. Unfortunately we do not know how much meat they ate, or whether they cooked it. Their digestive systems must have been adapted to eating a lot of plants, as they are in chimpanzees and gorillas today, so it is unlikely that they relied on meat for most of their food. A reasonable guess is that they ate their meat raw when they first started taking it from big game animals like antelope and hippos, and then learned over some tens of thousands of years that cooking improved it. By the way, canine teeth have nothing to do with meat-eating in primates. Species with big canines do a lot of fighting with each other. Mostly the ones with big canines are males, such as gorillas and baboons, but in some species like gibbons females have big canines too: They fight hard with other female gibbons.

PS
You argue that crossing the threshold from raw foods to cooked foods was a key milestone that helped make us fully human—or, rather, made our brains more human. Why?

RW
Cooked food is different in two very important ways from raw food. It gives us more energy, and it is softer. The increase in energy means that once they started relying on cooked food, our ancestors could live longer, have more babies, travel farther, fuel a big brain, and give up having voluminous guts. The softer food given by cooking allowed our ancestors to have small teeth, spend less time chewing, and more time on novel activities like hunting and tool-making. Brains use a lot of calories per day. Cooked diets helped brains enlarge because humans have small guts (thanks to eating soft, easily digested food), so some of the energy that had previously been used to power our guts could now be used for brains.

PS
Why, exactly, is cooked cuisine more nutritious than raw food?

RW
First, cooked food gives us more calories per gram of food that we eat. This is because the heat of cooking opens up molecules and makes them more easily split by enzymes. For instance cooking gelatinizes starch and denatures proteins. If starch or protein are eaten raw they are only partly digested in the small intestine, and then the half or more that remains is digested (or “fermented” by bacteria) very inefficiently in the large intestine. Second, cooked food costs us less of our body’s energy to digest. This is because cooked food is so relatively soft that our guts can break it down into smaller and smaller bits without too much muscular action in the stomach, or production of acids and enzymes. We do not know the typical amount by which cooking increases the energy value of foods, but it is probably closer to a 50 percent increase than 10 percent.

PS
Your theory holds that the bigger brains and smaller teeth of Homo erectus, our first ancestor to diverge convincingly from earlier, more apelike lines about 1.9 million years ago, is the result of eating cooked food. But other experts say that the evidence of controlled fire for cooking is a much more recent invention, dating back only about 400,000 years. How do respond to this critique?

RW
My theory is predictive. It says that if we look hard enough, we will find evidence of hominids controlling fire by around 1.9 million years ago. Other kinds of data might help too, such as evidence of genetic adaptation to cooked food. The cooking theory is based on a biological argument, whereas the challenge comes from archaeology.

PS
We’ve been gathering around hearths for a very long time. Modern suburbanites build fake electric fireplaces in their ranchette-style homes. Why is it so pleasurable to stare into fire embers? Does it tap some limbic memory of a full belly to come?

RW
Regardless of exactly when fire was first controlled, a fireplace has certainly been a critical part of human life for hundreds of thousands of years. It has been a place of safety, satisfaction, meals, and camaraderie. No wonder that everyone loves it.

 

There are 22 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bear
    February 8, 2013

    Are there any sources of flint or other fire starting possiblilties?

    • Paul Salopek
      February 13, 2013

      The use of controlled fire came much later. The toolmakers at Gona ate their meat raw and limited its preparation to hacking off chewable hunks.

  2. Russ
    February 9, 2013

    This is a fantastic venture and an incredible undertaking! This blog will be incredibly rich of information by the end of your journey. Is there a map of your progress that we can follow?

  3. Yong-Wook Andy Kang
    February 10, 2013

    How many kilometers are you walking per day? Also where do you sleep? I currently live in Saudi Arabia and landscape looks amazingly same as most parts of country here. Don’t expect much change of scenery soon!

    • Paul Salopek
      February 13, 2013

      The distance varies greatly. Sometimes just a few miles. Other days 25 or more. I sleep where nightfall finds me, either on the trail or, if appropriate, with local Afars in their domed huts. Thanks for the heads-up about the vistas ahead. It’s good prep for the endless gravel plains of Central Asia.

  4. Bandkanon
    February 10, 2013

    Another excellent post. It seems that me and my friends fascination with grilling meat on Sundays and holidays is genetic!

  5. Bill Scott
    February 10, 2013

    You and your guide Ahmed Alema Hessan are to be commended on undertaking and documenting such a trek. The name of the last post “Gona” is a rather fitting name in English for a location of a monument to the start of human population of the globe. That is in English slang in this little corner of the globe (Newfoundland, Ca) , Gona = going to do something. i.e. “We’re GONA leave this place and populate the world.” Thus I fully agree that it would be a fitting place to erect a monument to a great human endeavour. Take care and be well, looking forward to your future posts

  6. Nancy
    February 11, 2013

    Are there any other animals that seem to have gone through an evolutionary change in diet? This is a fascinating blog and it is great to be able to follow your walk.

    • Paul Salopek
      February 23, 2013

      Good question. All organisms adapt to changing environments—including how to feed themselves. Think about how birds’ beaks have specialized over time to crack seeds or lance insects. Probably the oldest unchanged diet belongs to blue-green algae: They’ve been imbibing sunlight for about a billion years.

  7. Brian T. Raven
    February 17, 2013

    How great a role did the pasteurizing benefits of cooking play in the eventual dominance of Hominids?

    • Paul Salopek
      February 23, 2013

      Good question. I don’t have an answer. My suspicion is: not very much. By the time we harnessed fire, our distant ancestors—Homo erectus in particular—had radiated across enormous regions of the Earth. So we were well on our way to global dominance. Cooking, as I understand it, is seen by experts mainly as an innovation that unlocked food energy.

  8. Ceri Mcgavisk.
    February 22, 2013

    Not brave hunters? Yet they chased hyenas and other predators away from their kills. Still sounds pretty brave to me.

  9. mireille beernaerts
    February 23, 2013

    only a few steps, and you have already “heckle” us with so many important questions. We ‘ll follow you al over with passion Paul, thank you and “bon vent”

  10. Joe Clark
    February 28, 2013

    Thank You for making this ambitious and courageous journey and Thank You for the photos and and your insightful comments. This like a good book that I can’t put down…

  11. Eva Maria Huschka
    March 31, 2013

    The nights can get cold. Fire would have povided the comfort of keeping warm, and saving energy. Is this so?

  12. Gonzalo
    April 13, 2013

    Its amazing what you`re doing!!! the richness of this trip is really great. Besides this blog are you going to write a book about it??

  13. gabbrielle
    May 29, 2013

    do u have tent to keep u warm at night how long do u have to go before u get there do u have a lot of food to eat and water to drink hope u make to where u need to go so u are doing a good job

  14. Tim Oliver
    November 24, 2013

    I just found this and wish I could read the dispatches from start to finish but the only way I can find is to return to the map and click on the next dispatch. Is there a better way?

  15. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013

    I wonder how the modern, ultra-processed, uber-refined, pre-packaged diet stacks up against the earliest pre-cooked diets.

  16. Azucena
    February 2, 2014

    @ Jim,

    I was wondering the same thing, and how the future man’s brain is going to evolve with processed food.

  17. Phil Merlino
    May 21, 2014

    I could just imagine two Homo/Australopithecus habilis crouched next to each other at a big old campfire being had because they were freezing their butts off one evening. One takes the last piece. They start arguing about the last bit of meat when one tries to yank the last morsel out of the hand of the other, half joking and half seriously very hungry, when the piece of meat is projected moonward and ends up in the fire. They start arguing and slapping one another, complaining and accusing the other of wasting the last bit of dinner as it has gone to waste in the blaze. Then… as one figures out that he can use two sticks as chopsticks to pinch the meat out of the fire, the other looks on with uncertainty and doubt. They proceed to blow off the ash and scrape the burnt part off. They cordially agree to “Break Meat” and to their delight, bite into the luscious, sweet meat and voila!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Are Calorie Counts on Nutrition Labels Making Us Fat? | Today Health Channel

    […] to meet the growing energy demands of increasingly big brains. (Read National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s interview with Wrangham on the original paleo […]

    March 7, 201411:14 pm

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