An image of Son Doong, the world's largest cave. Shutterstock.

Rewriting History: First Humans Cooked Food 170,000 Years Ago

Another discovery, another history-changing moment for us to take into consideration when trying to understand the origins of the human species. 


Archaeologists have discovered charred vegetable remains in a cave in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa that changes our understanding of the development of the human species and their day-to-day habits; Humans were already “chefs” 170,000 years ago when they extracted and cooked plants inside the cave.

The discovery indicates that the first modern humans were already cooking vegetables and plants s far back as 170,000 years ago.

Archeologists have discovered evidence that the food was shared around, and that the inhabitants of the cave made use of wooden sticks to dig and extract the plants from the ground.

Professor Lyn Wadley from the Wits Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa has revealed that the recent discovery is much older than previous reports for cooking plants.

“This discovery is much older than earlier reports for cooking similar plants and it provides a fascinating insight into the behavioral practices of early modern humans in southern Africa. It also implies that they shared food and used wooden sticks to extract plants from the ground,” professor Wadley explained in a statement.

The discovery is of extreme importance as experts say it is remarkable that such fragile plant remains have managed to survive for such an extensive period of time.

Archeologists had been exploring the Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains since 2015. The researchers have identified the small, charred cylinders as rhizomes.

View over Swaziland from mouth of Border Cave. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.
View over Swaziland from mouth of Border Cave. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

Analysis has suggested all belong to the same species, and 55 charred, whole rhizomes were identified as Hypoxis, commonly called the Yellow Starflower.

“The most likely of the species growing in KwaZulu-Natal today is the slender-leafed Hypoxis angustifolia that is favored as food,” explained Dr. Christine Sievers.

“It has small rhizomes with white flesh that is more palatable than the bitter, orange flesh of rhizomes from the better known medicinal Hypoxisspecies (incorrectly called African Potato).”

Experts identified the charred plants by their size and shape of the rhizomes and on their vascular structure which was examined under a scanning electron microscope.

Modern Hypoxis rhizomes and their ancient counterparts have been found to contain similar cellular structures and the same inclusions of microscopic crystal bundles dubbed raphides. Luckily, these unique features are even recognizable in charred specimens.

“We compared the botanical features of the modern geophytes and the ancient charred specimens, in order to identify them,” explains Sievers.

The ancients knew what they were eating. Hypoxis rhizomes are nutritious and carbohydrate-rich with an energy value of approximately 500 KJ/100g, the statement revealed.

Despite the fact that the plants are edible raw, the rhizomes are fibrous and have high fracture toughness until they are cooked.

Cooking Food 170,000 years ago

“Cooking the fiber-rich rhizomes would have made them easier to peel and to digest so more of them could be consumed and the nutritional benefits would be greater,” explained researchers in a statement detailing the discovery.

In addition to the extraordinary fact that modern humans were cooking their plants and veggies more than 170,000 years ago, archeologists were left stumped by the discovery of wooden digging sticks that were used hundreds of thousands of years ago in order to extract the rhizomes from the ground.

This suggests that the inhabitants of the cave knew what they were looking for, and were practiced in extracting the plants from the ground. The flowers most likely originated from an area near the cave.

“The Border Cave inhabitants would have dug Hypoxis rhizomes from the hillside near the cave, and carried them back to the cave to cook them in the ashes of fireplaces,” says Wadley.

“The fact that they were brought back to the cave rather than cooked in the field suggests that food was shared at the home base. This suggests that the rhizomes were roasted in ashes and that, in the process, some were lost. While the evidence for cooking is circumstantial, it is nonetheless compelling.”

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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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