Early Humans’ Complex Food Preparation Supports Exceptionalism

Genesis 4:2–4 states that the first humans were cultivating crops and keeping flocks of animals. Until recently, anthropologists insisted that early humans were subsistence hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists asserted that the diet of the first anatomically modern humans1 consisted predominantly of meat from large game animals supplemented by fruit, leafy greens, and roots gathered from wild plants.

This assessment began to change in 2015, when anthropologists discovered that ancient humans were engaged in preparing and baking bread.2 I have written two articles documenting and describing discoveries of how humans living 14,400, 23,000, and 32,600 years ago were harvesting grains, roasting and grinding the grains, and baking the flour over hearths they manufactured to produce a variety of breads.3 In those articles, I explained the reason why these discoveries were so late in coming. Previous to 12,000 years ago, the global climate was so unstable and the atmospheric carbon dioxide so low that any agricultural activity, by necessity, had to be small-scale and mixed (unspecialized), which made any potential discovery of ancient agricultural sophistication extremely difficult.

Additional Food Preparation Discoveries
A team of seven paleoanthropologists led by Ceren Kabukcu sought to determine the level of ancient agriculture and food preparation through the analysis of carbonized plant food remains that they found4 in the Franchthi and Shanidar caves. These sites are located in Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula and in the Zagros Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, respectively (see figure).

Figure: Locations of the Franchthi and Shanidar Caves
Credit: adapted from Ceren Kabukcu et al., Antiquity 2022, id. 143

Kabukcu’s team analyzed four plant aggregates, the charred residues of food preparation, recovered from the Franchthi Cave. Using a scanning electron microscope, the researchers determined that the residues included processed lentils, pea seeds, and bitter vetch (Vicia ervilia), a broad bean species. The observed damage to the plant cells revealed that the seeds were soaked, then subjected to coarse grinding and/or pounding, and then charred. They also found evidence that the food had been mashed and boiled. Such food processing would make the seeds easy to chew and digest. It also transformed the bitter vetch from being poisonous for human consumption to a flavorful spice. Previous research teams had found the processed remains of oats, barley, almonds, and pistachios at the Franchthi Cave.5 Kabukcu and her colleagues measured carbon-14 dates for the four aggregates that ranged from 13,100 to 12,900 years ago.

The team then analyzed five charred plant aggregates recovered from the Shanidar Cave. The food residues in these aggregates included pistachios, peas, and a variety of mustards. Here, too, they found evidence that the peas, nuts, and mustards had been soaked, ground, mashed, boiled, and charred. The carbon-14 dates for the five aggregates showed that the food therein had been cooked and eaten at least 40,000 years ago.

In another study, three Israeli researchers found charred plant macrofossils (large enough to be seen without a microscope) in the Kebara Cave (Mt. Carmel, Israel) showing that early humans were processing and eating wild almonds, acorns, and vetches in addition to peas, lentils, and fruits.6 Wild acorns, almonds, and vetches in their natural state are filled with tannins, cyanide, astringents, and other toxic compounds. Making such foods safe to eat requires a complex combination of soaking, grinding, roasting, mashing, and boiling. The charred food, seeds, and nuts found in the Kebara Cave date previous to 40,000 years ago. Electron spin resonance indicates that the charred food, seeds, and nuts date from 65,000 to 48,000 years ago. However, electron spin resonance dating is subject to large systematic errors.7

The Israeli researchers concluded that the diet of early humans must have been predominantly plant-based and the plants they consumed were more diverse than previously thought. They demonstrated that the labor needed to transform toxic plants into food that can be safely eaten is so large and complex that early humans would have undertaken such measures only if the quantities of plants being so transformed were huge. Their explanation for why such plant remains are rarely found in Paleolithic excavations is that “most caves and open-air sites did not encourage the preservation of these kinds of organics.”8

Evidence for complex food preparation by early humans is not limited to Europe and the Middle East. Archaeobotanical studies in Borneo uncovered evidence that humans 50,000–40,000 years ago were processing highly toxic yams and nuts into safe and edible foods.9 These studies now establish beyond reasonable doubt that complex food processing and preparation was ubiquitous among early humans.

Implications of Early Complex Food Preparation
A naturalistic bias imposed on the origin and history of human beings asserts that the first humans possessed technology and manifested behavior that is indistinguishable from the technology and behavior of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo erectus. This same bias also avows that for early anatomically modern humans technology and behavior advanced at a slow, gradual pace.

However, the latest discoveries by paleoanthropologists now soundly refute these naturalistic beliefs. There is no scientific evidence, at least no evidence that is not widely disputed, that the bipedal primates that preceded anatomically modern humans had control over fire, ever engaged in cooking, or purposefully roasted, ground, or boiled their food. Instead, there is now widespread evidence that all early humans were engaged in these activities. This evidence sustains the biblical claims about the technological capability of the earliest generations of humanity. It also sustains the biblical doctrine of human exceptionalism.


  1. Most anthropologists use the term humans to include the several hominid species that preceded present-day human species.
  2. Ainit Snir et al., “The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long before Neolithic Farming,” PLOS One 10 (July 22, 2015): id. 0131422, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131422; Marta Mariotti Lippi et al., “Multistep Food Plant Processing at Grotta Paglicci (Southern Italy) around 32,600 Cal B.P.,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 112, no. 39 (September 8, 2015): 12075–12080, doi:10.1073/pnas.1505213112.
  3. Hugh Ross, “The First Humans Developed Food-Processing Technology,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, October 5, 2015; Hugh Ross, “Confirmation That Early Humans Were Making Bread,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 27, 2018.
  4. Ceren Kabukcu et al., “Cooking in Caves: Palaeolithic Carbonised Plant Food Remains from Franchthi and Shanidar,” Antiquity, published online November 23, 2022, id. 143, doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.143.
  5. Eleni Asouti, Maria Ntinou, and Ceren Kabukcu, “The Impact of Environmental Change on Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Plant Use and the Transition to Agriculture at Franchthi Cave, Greece,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 11 (November 20, 2018), id. e0207805, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0207805.
  6. Efraim Lev, Mordechai E. Kislev, and Ofer Bar-Yosef, “Mousterian Vegetal Food in Kebara Cave, Mt. Carmel,” Journal of Archaeological Science 32, no. 3 (March 2005): 475–484, doi:10.1016/j.jas.2004.11.006.
  7. Hugh Ross, “Errors in Human Origins Dates,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, June 29, 2020.
  8. Lev, Kislev, and Bar-Yosef, “Mousterian Vegetal Food,” 475.
  9. Graeme Barker et al., “The ‘Human Revolution’ in Lowland Tropical Southeast Asia: The Antiquity and Behavior of Anatomically Modern Humans at Niah Cave (Sarawak, Borneo),” Journal of Human Evolution 52, no. 3 (March 2007): 243–261, doi:10.1016/j.hevol.2016.08.011.