Outdoor fire, bonfire

Exploring ancient diets

Research shows that food preparation is ancient history. By Jon Turney

Bones from ancient sites show that our ancestors were butchering animals long ago: bones with cut marks made before they were fossilised date back 3.5 million years.

This supports the theory that meat-eating was important for human evolution. Brains use lots of energy, and raw meat is a better energy source than plant foods. Hunting could have allowed some apes to get by with a smaller stomach – and use less energy for digestion – while evolving bigger brains. Fire for cooking, which probably came later, also helped by easing digestion.

Plant tubers were also an abundant food source that needed cooking. Stone Age peoples, tens of thousands of years ago, were grinding wild grains to make a kind of flour. Much older tools from a cave in Mozambique show traces of starch grains, which may indicate the grinding of sorghum flour as many as 100,000 years ago – although not all archaeologists agree. Nonetheless, it certainly looks as if gathering for a prepared meal goes back a long way.

Lead image:

Robbie Shade/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Food and Diet’ in June 2011 and reviewed and updated in August 2016.

Physiology, History
Food and Diet
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development