A new paper analysing dental plaque from a hominin molar suggests that this group did not use fire for cooking, but had a balanced diet of raw meat and plants. The molar is one of the earliest hominin fragments found in Europe and is thought to be 1.2 million years old. Of course they may have had some rudimentary control of fire which did not extend, till then, to cooking.
Hardy, K., Radini, A., Buckley, S. et al. Sci Nat (2017) 104: 2. doi:10.1007/s00114-016-1420-x, Diet and environment 1.2 million years ago revealed through analysis of dental calculus from Europe’s oldest hominin at Sima del Elefante, Spain
Abstract: Sima del Elefante, Atapuerca, Spain contains one of the earliest hominin fragments yet known in Europe, dating to 1.2 Ma. Dental calculus from a hominin molar was removed, degraded and analysed to recover entrapped remains. Evidence for plant use at this time is very limited and this study has revealed the earliest direct evidence for foods consumed in the genus Homo. This comprises starchy carbohydrates from two plants, including a species of grass from the Triticeae or Bromideae tribe, meat and plant fibres. All food was eaten raw, and there is no evidence for processing of the starch granules which are intact and undamaged. Additional biographical detail includes fragments of non-edible wood found adjacent to an interproximal groove suggesting oral hygiene activities, while plant fibres may be linked to raw material processing. Environmental evidence comprises spores, insect fragments and conifer pollen grains which are consistent with a forested environment.
The control of fire is thought to have been achieved between 1.5 million and 400,000 years ago and coinciding with the evolution of homo habilis to homo erectus. This research suggests that , at least in Europe, cooking had not been established by 1.2 million years ago. But whether the particular individual whose molar has been studies was a homo erectus or an evolving homo habilis is unknown.
The intriguing question, of course, is whether human evolution led to control of fire or whether the control of fire led to the evolution of homo sapiens from homo erectus. The archaeological evidence is that control of fire was certainly established by about 800,000 years ago and that hearths (specifically for cooking) were known some 400,000 years ago. This research is consistent with the eating of cooked meat not having begun by 1.2 million years ago. Probably this was not widespread till about 400,000 years ago.
I find it most plausible that the control of fire was the single critical development/advance which made the evolution to homo sapiens possible and which made human social and technological development inevitable. It also seems more than just plausible that the real increase in brain size was connected to cooking and the increase of energy available to the human physique by a diet based on cooking meat. It was the control of fire which was the true start of the anthropocene:
The advent and control of fire led – eventually but inevitably – to the Stone Age transforming into the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. And in due course it has given the Machine Age, the Electrical Age, the Plastics Age and the current Semiconductors Age. All these “Ages” are surely part of the Anthropocene. There is a case to be made for the advent of stone tools defining Man but I think there is a much stronger case to be made for the advent and control of fire being what defines and distinguishes “Man” from all other animals.
Once fire was harnessed, the dominance of Homo Sapiens not just over other species but also over the environment became inevitable. Fire saw humans through the Ice Ages. The Stone Age plus fire gave the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age + fire led to the Iron Age. It was fire in its various avatars (hearths to ovens to smelters, or energy to steam to electricity) which helped transform one Age to the next.
The one single capability which initiated the divergence of humans from all other animals and which has resulted in the inevitable development and domination of modern humans is the control of fire. And that was around 400,000 years ago. The Age of Man began when Homo Erectus learned to produce fire at will and to contain fire in a hearth. I would even speculate that without fire Homo Erectus would not have survived to evolve into Homo Sapiens. Without fire Homo Sapiens would not have thrived through the ice ages or left the tropics to colonise more northern climes.