How Stone Agers cooked and why it matters to us

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

July 2009

Ancient humans controlled fire a couple of hundred thousand years ago, perhaps much earlier, but using it to cook was a fairly recent development. Recent, that is, in archeological terms. Stone Agers built hearths about 30,000 years ago and they learned how to use heat to process grain when the Agricultural Revolution began about 15,000 years later.

With no pottery utensils until about 20,000 years ago our ancestors probably relied on roasting meat over an open flame and pit-cooking. We imitate them with barbecuing and New England clambakes (or Hawaiian luaus). Native Americans placed heated stones into tightly-woven baskets filled with water, an early version of the crock-pot.

Stone Agers probably enjoyed the enhanced flavor of cooked meat. That was a valuable attribute in those days without refrigeration when they depended on road kill or other predators' leftovers. The oldest, in the absence of dentists, undoubtedly appreciated the ease of chewing meat that had been tenderized and made more digestible by heating.

Roasting meat over an open flame often causes charring and the production of harmful chemicals. These heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and nitrosamines have been linked to cancer of the colon, pancreas and other organs. That association has been so consistent that numerous medical authorities recommend that we limit our intake of barbecued meat and especially, avoid charring.

So did Stone Agers face this risk? Probably, but they were much more likely to be victims of homicide than cancer, or to be eaten themselves.

Persons familiar with luaus and clambakes know that pit cooking is a long, slow process, and that doesn't include the time it takes to dig the pit. Layers of tropical leaves or seaweed separate the food from heated stones or embers. The steaming that takes place over several hours thoroughly cooks the contents with minimal formation of harmful by-products.

Stone-Agers, of course, didn't fry food. They had no suitable utensils and the production of cooking oils had to wait until the development of mechanical presses, long after the start of the Agricultural Revolution.

Deep frying carries its own hazards, especially the restaurant practice of using the same batch of oil for a couple of days. Prolonged heating of vegetable oils yields chemicals that are directly harmful to the lining of blood vessels.

We should imitate Stone Age cooking methods: slow, low heat and no deep frying.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at