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At the base of a brush-covered hill in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, a massive

At the base of a brush-covered hill in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, a massive stone outcropping marks the entrance to one of humanity’s oldest known dwelling places. Humans and our apelike ancestors have lived in Wonderwerk Cave for 2 million years — most recently in the early 1900s, when a farm couple and their 14 children called it home. Wonderwerk holds another distinction as well: The cave contains the earliest solid evidence that our ancient human forebears (probably Homo erectus) were using fire.

Like many archaeological discoveries, this one was accidental. Researchers weren’t looking for signs of prehistoric fire; they were trying to determine the age of sediments in a section of the cave where other researchers had found primitive stone tools. In the process, the team unearthed what appeared to be the remains of campfires from a million years ago — 200,000 years older than any other firm evidence of human-controlled fire. Their findings also fanned the flames of a decade-old debate over the influence of fire, particularly cooking, on the evolution of our species’s relatively capacious brains.

evolution of our species’s relatively capacious brains. At Wonderwerk, Boston University archaeologist Paul Goldberg

At Wonderwerk, Boston University archaeologist Paul Goldberg — a specialist in soil micromorphology, or the small-scale study of sediments — dug chunks of compacted dirt from the old excavation area. He then dried them out and soaked them in a polyester resin so they would harden to a rocklike consistency. Once the blocks solidified, researchers sawed them into wafer-thin slices.

The “eureka” moment came later, as the slices were examined under a microscope at Israel’s Weizmann Institute. “Holy cow!” Goldberg exclaimed. “There’s ashes in there!”

He and his colleagues saw carbonized leaf and twig fragments. Looking more closely, they identified burned bits of animal bones as well. The bones’ sharp edges, and the excellent preservation of the plant ash, indicated that neither wind nor rain had ushered in the burnt material. The burning clearly had occurred inside the cave.

Then team member Francesco Berna subjected the sample to a test called Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy (FTIR), which analyzes a material’s composition by measuring the way it absorbs infrared waves. Often used in crime labs to identify traces of drugs and fibers, FTIR can also determine the temperature to which organic matter has been heated — and Berna is among the first to adapt it for archaeology. When he ran an FTIR analysis on one of the sediment slices, the sample’s infrared signature showed that the cave material had been heated to between 750 and 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. That was just right for a small fire made of twigs and grasses.

The Cooking Hypothesis

When the team announced its findings in April 2012, it added fuel to a controversy that’s been smoldering since 1999. That year, influential primatologist Richard Wrangham proposed a theory of human origins called the “cooking hypothesis.” Wrangham aimed to fill a gap in the story of how early hominins like Australopithecus — essentially, apes that walked upright — evolved into modern Homo sapiens. Evolutionary science shows that our distant progenitors became bipedal 6 million to 7 million years ago. Archaeologists believe early hominins evolved bigger brains as they walked, took up hunting and developed more complex social structures. That process led to the emergence of Homo habilis, the first creature generally regarded as human, 2.3 million years ago. Yet H. habilis’ brain was only moderately larger than Australopithecus’, and its body retained many apelike features. No one knows why, just 500,000 years later, a radically more advanced species — Homo erectus — emerged. Its brain was up to twice the size of its predecessor’s, its teeth were much smaller, and its body was quite similar to ours. Wrangham credits the transformation to the harnessing of fire. Cooking food, he argues, allowed for easier chewing and digestion, making extra calories available to fuel energy-hungry brains. Firelight could ward off nighttime predators, allowing hominins to sleep on the ground, or in caves, instead of in trees. No longer needing huge choppers, heavy-duty guts or a branch swinger’s arms and shoulders, they could instead grow mega-craniums. The altered anatomy of H. erectus, Wrangham wrote, indicates that these beings, like us, were “creatures of flame.”

There was one major problem with this hypothesis, however: Proving it would require evidence of controlled fire from at least 1.8 million years ago, when the first H. erectus appeared.

Previous Sparks

The clues indicating early use of fire tend to be subtle; it’s easy to miss them, but it’s also easy to see them when they’re not really there. What looks like charring on a rock or bone, for example, often turns out to be staining from minerals or fungus. And high-tech analytic techniques don’t always banish the ambiguity.

In recent decades, a number of sites have vied for the title of earliest human-controlled fire. At Koobi Fora and Chesowanja, both in Kenya, small patches of reddened soil were found in areas containing stone tools up to 1.5 million years old. To try to prove that Early Stone Age campfires caused the discoloration, researchers in the 1980s and ’90s used techniques such as magnetic susceptibility analysis and thermoluminescence dating. The first tool detects burned earth by gauging fluctuations

in its magnetic field; the second determines how long ago an object was heated by measuring the photons it emits when baked in a lab. Although these methods showed that burning had occurred, the evidence is simply too sparse to convince most archaeologists that humans — not wildfires or lightning — were responsible.

Another promising site is a South African cave called Swartkrans, where archaeologists in the ’80s found burned bones in a section dating between 1 million and 1.5 million years ago. In 2004, Williams College chemist Anne Skinner analyzed the bones using electron spin resonance, which estimates the temperature to which an artifact has been heated by measuring molecular fragments called free radicals. She determined that the bones had reached at least 900 degrees — too hot for most wildfires, but consistent with a campfire. But since the cave has a gaping mouth and a downward- sloping floor, naysayers argue that the objects might have washed in later after being burned outside.

Until the Wonderwerk Cave find, Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, a lakeside site in Israel, was considered to have the oldest generally accepted evidence of human-controlled fire. There, a team of scientists found traces of numerous hearths dating to between 690,000 and 790,000 years ago. A wide range of clues made this site convincing, including isolated clusters of burned flint, as if toolmakers had been knapping hand axes by several firesides. The team also found fragments of burned fruit, grain and wood scattered about.

Then came Wonderwerk. The ash-filled sediment that Goldberg and Berna found came from a spot approximately 100 feet from the entrance to the tunnel-like cave, too far to have been swept in by the elements. The team also found circular chips of fractured stone known as pot-lid flakes — telltale signs of fire — in the same area. These clues turned up throughout the million-year-old layer of sediment, indicating that fires had burned repeatedly at the site.

Digging Deeper Does that mean fire drove the evolution of H. erectus? Is the cooking hypothesis correct? The occupants who left these ashes at Wonderwerk lived nearly a million years after the emergence of H. erectus. Goldberg and Berna point out that it’s unclear whether the cave’s inhabitants knew how to start a fire from scratch or depended on flames harvested from grass fires outside the cave. If they were eating barbecue, it may have been only an occasional luxury. Whether that could have had an impact on human development remains an open question. Finding the answers will require more digging. At Wonderwerk, team members plan to probe deeper, analyzing sediments up to 1.8 million years old, for evidence of fire. And they are using their cutting-edge detection methods at other early H. erectus sites as well. “If you don’t look, you’re not going to find it,” Goldberg says.

methods at other early H. erectus sites as well. “If you don’t look, you’re not going
methods at other early H. erectus sites as well. “If you don’t look, you’re not going

Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter

Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter Om Nom Nom: As we began to shy

Om Nom Nom: As we began to shy away from eating primarily fruit, leaves and nuts and began eating meat, our brains grew. We developed the capacity to use tools, so our need for large, sharp teeth and big grinders waned. From left, a cast of teeth from a chimpanzee, Australopithecus afarensis and a modern human.

Our earliest ancestors ate their food raw — fruit, leaves, maybe some nuts. When they ventured down onto land, they added things like underground tubers, roots and berries.

It wasn't a very high-calorie diet, so to get the energy you needed, you had to eat a lot and have a big gut to digest it all. But having a big gut has its drawbacks.

"You can't have a large brain and big guts at the same time," explains Leslie Aiello, an anthropologist and director of the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City, which funds research on evolution. Digestion, she says, was the energy-hog of our primate ancestor's body. The brain was the poor stepsister who got the leftovers.

Until, that is, we discovered meat.

"What we think is that this dietary change around 2.3 million years ago was one of the major significant factors in the evolution of our own species," Aiello says.

That period is when cut marks on animal bones appeared — not a predator's tooth marks, but incisions that could have been made only by a sharp tool. That's one sign of our carnivorous conversion. But Aiello's favorite clue is somewhat ickier — it's a tapeworm. "The closest relative of human tapeworms are tapeworms that affect African hyenas and wild dogs," she says.

So sometime in our evolutionary history, she explains, "we actually shared saliva with wild dogs and hyenas." That would have happened if, say, we were scavenging on the same carcass that hyenas were.

But dining with dogs was worth it. Meat is packed with lots of calories and fat. Our brain — which uses about 20 times as much energy as the equivalent amount of muscle — piped up and said, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Carving Up The Diet As we got more, our guts shrank because we didn't need a giant vegetable processor any more. Our bodies could spend more energy on other things like building a bigger brain. Sorry, vegetarians, but eating meat apparently made our ancestors smarter — smart enough to make better tools, which in turn led to other changes, says Aiello.

"If you look in your dog's mouth and cat's mouth, and open up your own mouth, our teeth are quite different," she says. "What allows us to do what a cat or dog can do are tools."

Tools meant we didn't need big sharp teeth like other predators. Tools even made vegetable matter easier to deal with. As anthropologist Shara Bailey at New York University says, they were like "external" teeth.

"Your teeth are really for processing food, of course, but if you do all the food processing out here," she says, gesturing with her hands, "if you are grinding things, then there is less pressure for your teeth to pick up the slack."

Our teeth, jaws and mouth changed as well as our gut.

A Tough Bite To Swallow But adding raw meat to our diet doesn't tell the whole food story, according to anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Wrangham invited me to his apartment at Harvard University to explain what he believes is the real secret to being human. All I had to do was bring the groceries, which meant a steak — which I thought could fill in for wildebeest or antelope — and a turnip, a mango, some peanuts and potatoes.

As we slice up the turnip and put the potatoes in a pot, Wrangham explains that even after we started eating meat, raw food just didn't pack the energy to build the big-brained, small-toothed modern human. He cites research that showed that people on a raw food diet, including meat and oil, lost a lot of weight. Many said they felt better, but also experienced chronic energy deficiency. And half the women in the experiment stopped menstruating.

It's not as if raw food isn't nutritious; it's just harder for the body to get at the nutrition.

Wrangham urges me to try some raw turnip. Not too bad, but hardly enough to get the juices flowing. "They've got a tremendous amount of caloric energy in them," he says. "The problem is that it's in the form of starch, which unless you cook it, does not give you very much."

Then there's all the chewing that raw food requires. Chimps, for example, sometimes chew for six hours a day. That actually consumes a lot of energy.

"Plato said if we were regular animals, you know, we wouldn't have time to write poetry," Wrangham jokes. "You know, he was right."

Tartare No More One solution might have been to pound food, especially meat — like the steak I brought. "If our ancestors had used stones to mash the meat like this," Wrangham says as he demonstrates with a wooden mallet, "then it would have reduced the difficulty they would have had in digesting it."

But pounding isn't as good as cooking that steak, says Wrangham. And cooking is what he thinks really changed our modern body. Someone discovered fire — no one knows exactly when — and

then someone got around to putting steak and veggies on the barbeque. And people said, "Hey, let's do that again."

Besides better taste, cooked food had other benefits — cooking killed some pathogens on food.

But cooking also altered the meat itself. It breaks up the long protein chains, and that makes them easier for stomach enzymes to digest. "The second thing is very clear," Wrangham adds, "and that is the muscle, which is made of protein, is wrapped up like a sausage in a skin, and the skin is collagen, connective tissue. And that collagen is very hard to digest. But if you heat it, it turns to jelly."

As for starchy foods like turnips, cooking gelatinizes the tough starch granules and makes them easier to digest too. Even just softening food — which cooking does — makes it more digestible. In the end, you get more energy out of the food.

Yes, cooking can damage some good things in raw food, like vitamins. But Wrangham argues that what's gained by cooking far outweighs the losses.

As I cut into my steak (Wrangham is a vegetarian; he settles for the mango and potatoes), Wrangham explains that cooking also led to some of the finer elements of human behavior: it encourages people to share labor; it brings families and communities together at the end of the day and encourages conversation and story-telling — all very human activities.

"Ultimately, of course, what makes us intellectually human is our brain," he says. "And I think that comes from having the highest quality of food in the animal kingdom, and that's because we cook."

So, as the Neanderthals liked to say around the campfire: bon appetit.