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Humans cooked on fire one million years ago, scientists say

Scientists studying South Africa's Wonderwerk Cave have discovered the world's earliest use of fire, adding fuel to a national obsession with the "braai," the local equivalent of a barbecue.
Worlds earliest braai wonderwerk  20120403Enlarge
South Africans gestures around a braai, barbecue in Afrikaans, in Soweto on September 19, 2009. Part cooking method, part national obsession, the braai is a shared social custom that cuts across race and social divisions 15 years after the fall of white minority rule. (PABALLO THEKISO/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG — Scientists have uncovered evidence in South Africa's Wonderwerk Cave, at the edge of the Kalahari desert, that suggests humans were cooking over fire more than a million years ago.

The discovery of burned bone fragments and ashed plant remains is evidence of the earliest use of fire, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And on a local news note, the discovery may also serve to bolster South Africa's national obsession with the "braai," the local term for barbecue. The braai is considered a unifying force in this diverse country, with cooking on fire an activity common to South Africans of all races, languages and religions.

"You could call it the original baptism of fire: the moment hominins first began controlling flames," New Scientist said, describing the discovery.

More from GlobalPost: Oldest 'art studio' discovered in South Africa's Blombos Cave

Wonderwerk Cave, in South Africa's Northern Cape province, is one of the oldest known sites of human habitation, according to the journal Nature. The new evidence of fire is dated 300,000 years earlier than previous archeological findings.

"The ability to control fire was a crucial turning point in human evolution," says the study, based on research conducted by a team of scientists led by the University of Toronto and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the earliest secure evidence for burning in an archeological context," it says.

But some experts caution that more proof is needed. Early evidence of fire could be due to opportunistic use of natural fires.

“The impact of cooking food is well documented, but the impact of control over fire would have touched all elements of human society. Socializing around a campfire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human," said Michael Chazan, a University of Toronto anthropologist, according to The Scotsman.

And good news for visitors to Wonderwerk Cave: the site is open to the public, with an adjacent interpretative center. Chalets on site come with braai pits included.

More from GlobalPost: Oldest dinosaur nests found in South Africa

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