Did early humans learn to cook in Olduvai Gorge?

Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania was for many years the stamping ground of the famous Leakey family and many other anthropologists because of it richness in the skeletal remains and the tools of the earliest members of our genus Homo. The first of these, H. habilis, appears in the Olduvai stratigraphic sequence at around 2 Ma: older examples are now known from localities in Kenya and South Africa taking the species back to about 2.4 Ma. ‘Handy Man’ got the Latinised nickname from its association with abundant stone tools, albeit of a very primitive kind. Oldowan tools are of the ‘let’s bash a couple of pebbles together to get a cutting edge’ kind, dating back to 3.4 Ma (but without evidence of who made them then) and as easily-made disposable tools they linger in the archaeological record until the Neolithic and even modern times. Homo habilis had a brain size little larger than that of australopithecines and some authorities deem them to be such.

Olduvai also yielded the earliest of a more ‘brainy’ species H. ergaster (‘Action Man’), which coexisted with habilis for a few hundred thousand years from around 2 Ma. Initially they also left Oldowan tools. Then, around 1.7 Ma at Olduvai, ergaster began making another stone artefact, the symmetrical bifacial ‘axe’ – probably a multipurpose tool and possibly an object of ritual significance, according to some researchers. Whichever, to make one required visualising the finished item within a shapeless lump of hard rock, and making them required great dexterity: and still does for stone knappers. The biface or ‘Acheulean’ tool originates with one of humanity’s greatest cognitive leaps and lay at the centre of the human toolkit for well over a million years. After being made first in Olduvai by African H. ergaster biface artefacts then spread throughout the continent with H. erectus (probably a direct descendent) and beyond its shores with succeeding humans, up to and including the earliest H. sapiens. How did what seems to be a ‘golden spike’ in human culture first take material form in Olduvai? The possibility of an answer stems from pure serendipity and the development of new research tools.

A flint bifacial stone artefact from the Palaeolithic of Norfolk, UK, which incorporates a bivalve fossil

That the Olduvai Gorge has drawn in several generations of researchers lies in its geology. As well as the sediments deposited by rivers and in ephemeral lakes that characterised a broadly speaking savannah environment, from 2 to 1 Ma there were at least 31 major volcanic eruptions that deposited lavas and a wide range of volcanic ash beds. These have enabled precise dating to calibrate in minute detail the evolution of a highly productive environment and the flora and fauna that it supported during the early Pleistocene. A recently developed technique involves identification of a variety of fatty acids or lipids – natural oils, waxes and steroids – using gas chromatography. Lipids are the remaining ‘biomarkers’ of plants and microorganisms that once lived in an ecosystem. Ainara Sistiaga of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Copenhagen, with colleagues from Denmark, Spain, the US and Tanzania, set out to document ecological variation at Olduvai over a million-year interval using this approach. Among the microbial biomarkers they stumbled on something of possibly great importance (Sistiaga, A. and 10 others 2020. Microbial biomarkers reveal a hydrothermally active landscape at Olduvai Gorge at the dawn of the Acheulean, 1.7 Ma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 117, published online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2004532117).

The palaeo-landscape of Olduvai, as revealed by lipid analysis, was highly diverse and rich in grasses, palms shrubs, aquatic flora and edible plants, watered by spring-fed rivers. It supported a diverse fauna including large herbivores (supported by fecal biomarkers): ideal for hominin subsistence. Sistiaga et al. focus in their paper on samples from the 1.7 Ma sedimentary and volcanic sequence (the Lower Augitic Sandstones – augite is an igneous pyroxene) that contains remains of H. ergaster, the oldest bifacial artefacts, and dismembered carcases of hominin prey animals. The surprise that emerged from the volcanoclastic sandstones included lipids produced by a range of bacterial species that only thrive in modern hot springs, such as those at Yellowstone and on the North Island of New Zealand. At three sample sites biomarkers for one particular hyperthermophile were found (Thermocrinis ruber), which can only live in water between 80 to 95°C. This and the other heat-loving bacteria also require water chemistry that, if cool, is drinkable.

Artist’s impression of Homo ergaster cooking an antelope in a 1.7 Ma hot spring at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania (credit: Tom Björklund, MIT)

The implication is obvious: the ancient Olduvai hot springs were capable of thoroughly cooking meat and vegetables. The importance for humans is that cooking both tenderises meat and tough tubers and roots and breaks down carbohydrates and proteins to make them more easily and efficiently digestible. The brain capacity of H. ergaster was significantly greater than that of H. habilis, and at the average 800 cm3 about 2/3 that of anatomically modern humans. An increase in the input of easily digested protein, fats and carbohydrates may have fuelled that growth and, in turn, the cognitive capacity of H. ergaster. Not only the Western Rift Valley of Tanzania but the whole of the East African Rift System is liberally dotted with hydrothermal vents and also with hominin-rich sites.

See also: Chu, J. 2020. Did our early ancestors boil their food in hot springs? (MIT News, 15 September 2020)

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