In a cave in South Africa, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a million-year-old campfire, and discovered tiny bits of animal bones and ash from plants. It’s the oldest evidence of our ancient human ancestors—probably Homo erectus, a species that preceded ours — cooking a meal.
It’s a long way, of course, from that primitive repast to preparing a multi-course meal on your kitchen stove, or sticking a quick snack into the microwave. But without our early ancestors’ innovation, you might not be here now to enjoy that broiled chicken breast and side of sweet-potato fries. Cooking, some scientists believe, played a crucial role in the evolution, survival and ascent of early humans, helping to transform them from a ragged, minuscule fringe of struggling hunter-gatherers into the animal that dominates the planet. Moreover, since then cooking has continued to exert a powerful influence upon human civilization in numerous ways—not just by filling our bellies, but by helping to nourish the culture and rituals that form humanity’s social nature.