On a blustery day in October, Andrew Langley and 13 other graduate students headed to the woods to learn to boil water. They were allowed no obvious cooking vessels: no pots, no pans, no bowls, no cups, no containers at all. But they did bring deer hides, which Langley had carefully procured from deer farms. They were to boil water the Paleolithic way.
Langley is a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of York, and he studies how prehistoric humans cooked without pottery. Ceramics are a relatively recent invention in the long arc of human history. Pottery shards appear in the archaeological record only 20,000 years ago, first in China and then many millennia later in the Near East and Europe. Metal cookware is an even more recent innovation. For tens or even hundreds of thousands of years before all this, our ancestors were building fires and using heat to make food tastier, safer, and easier to digest. The invention of cooking, anthropologists have argued, helped make humans human.
It’s easy to imagine how prehistoric people could have roasted their food. It’s much harder to imagine how they could have boiled it without pottery. But that’s what Langley, who was helping lead a class of master’s students in archaeology, set out to attempt that October morning. Their boiling experiment was part of a course, and it took place at the York Experimental Archaeological Research Centre, a lakeside grove where researchers try to re-create the prehistoric by hafting arrowheads and weaving baskets out of reeds—and, in this case, boiling water. The students divided into groups of two or three, and they set out on this extremely simple yet daunting task.