4 min read
Hayley Kinsey Rockpools

In Greek mythology, the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus defected and joined the Gods. Zeus, leader of the Gods, tasked them with creating animals and humans. I don't like this bit much - humans aren't separate from animals - but I do enjoy the next part.

Epimetheus got to work dishing out Godly traits to the animals he created. He bestowed upon each of them something special from the realm of the Gods: the wonder of flight, the ability to breathe underwater, incredible climbing abilities.

Prometheus, meanwhile, was making humans. He shaped them (rather unimaginatively) in the image of the Gods. But when Prometheus turned to Epimetheus to ask for an impressive God-like trait for his creations, Epimetheus said he'd given them all away to the animals. There were none left for humans, nothing to make them special.

Zeus loved this. Simple beings were all the more likely to worship the Gods. There was a debacle involving the offerings to the Gods which I won't go into, but it ended with Zeus banning humans from using fire.

Prometheus was unimpressed. He wanted his creations to be powerful but they were weak. Maybe he was embarrassed of his feeble humans in the face of the wonder that Epimetheus had bestowed on the other animals.

Prometheus snuck into the Gods' forge and stole some fire to give to the humans. He kept helping humans, teaching them all sorts of things, like architecture and navigation.

With all this help, humans got pretty full of themselves. Some of them even started to think they were all-powerful, that they were Gods, that they had dominium over everything on the Earth.

It all escalated from there - Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a cliff so that a vulture could pluck out his liver, only for it to heal overnight and be plucked out again forevermore. But the damage was done: humans were creating empires, enslaving each other, abusing the Earth and, all the while, thinking of themselves as godly.

Hayley Kinsey in sea

Staring out to sea thinking about how we didn't even invent cooking

This story illustrates how central the use of fire is to our understanding of how our species came to have the destructive power that it does.

Humans conquered fire, invented cooking, and all the rest is history. Right?

Well, it turns out we didn't even invent cooking.

I'm partial to information that humbles humans, so I was fascinated when I read in the New Scientist that other species were cooking long before we were.

There were other species that looked a bit like us that were around well before Homo sapiens were even a glint in the evolutionary eye, and there were also other species that shared similarities with Homo sapiens that were around at the same time as early humans (some even got very cosy - some people have around 2% Neanderthal DNA).

Hominini is the name of the taxonomic tribe to which we and some of the other bipedal species belong.

We've recently found evidence that hominins were oven-cooking carp around 780,000 years ago in South Africa. This is way before we were in the picture; our species didn't exist yet. Neanderthals or other extinct hominins were cooking up a fishy storm hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens even made it onto the scene.

There is even evidence of cooking in a cave in South Africa that is a million years old, and hominins were roasting meat on the fire 1.5 million years ago in Kenya.

It's hard to find evidence of cooking because the remains tend to disappear, but this evidence relates to pretty advanced cooking. If you're cooking fish in an earthen oven, it's likely that your species have had control of fire for a long time before anyone came up with the idea of cooking within a container and then got to work fashioning ovens.

There's even some evidence that hominins with smaller brains, Homo naledi, controlled fire and used it to cook. The caves where their remains were found contain charcoal, hearths, and burnt bones. The fire-related findings haven't been dated yet, but if they're linked to Homo naledi then maybe the use of fire for cooking goes back even further, back through earlier Homo species that also had smaller brains.

This wouldn't surprise me - after all, we thought that we were the ones to invent cooking, then when that turned out not to be true we thought it must be something to do with our massive brains (we love talking about how big our brains are), but it's entirely possible that isn't true either, and that cooking was around a very, very long time before we started doing it.

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