Cooking and the course of human evolution

A carrot becomes soft, a lobster turns bright red and an egg transforms from liquid to solid. Food changes in a number of different ways when it is cooked. But has the act of cooking changed humans as a species? A growing number of scientists think that is very likely.

Cooking is a human activity. No other animal on the planet cooks food like humans do. And every known human society throughout history has cooked food.

About 1.8 million years ago homo erectus arrived on the scene.  They had bigger bodies and bigger brains than the humans that had come before them. And while bodies and brains had increased in size, their guts, jaws and teeth were all smaller.

How could this new human support its greater size if the parts of it responsible for converting food into energy were shrinking? Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham thinks the advent of cooking may hold the key to this remarkable stage in human evolution.

Today we take for granted the benefits of cooking food but for early man they were life changing. 

Cooking means chopping, grinding and heating food to physically and chemically change it. Cooking makes food easier to eat and faster to digest. Cooked food also delivers more energy-giving calories to the human body than raw food does. For all of these reasons humans were able to extract much more energy from the food they consumed while using less energy to do so.

Fast fact: Our primate relatives spend half their days chewing tough raw food. Great apes, for example, spend four to seven hours just chewing each day.

Cooking presented homo erectus with a highly efficient way of converting food into much more energy. Teeth and jaws didn’t have to be as big and strong as they needed to be to chew raw food. Guts didn’t have to be as big as they needed to be to store raw food as it slowly broke down in the stomach. Big bodies and more importantly big brains received the high amounts of energy they demand.

Fast fact: The human brain consumes a quarter of the body’s energy.

And cooking not only changed the human body into a highly efficient eating machine. It changed human society.  Less time and energy spent eating meant early humans had the time (and those bigger brains) to develop tools and agriculture. Cooking also gave them a reason to gather together, which developed stronger relationships and a sense of home.

Chefs for chimps

Experiments with chimpanzees showed they preferred cooked over raw food and had the patience to wait for it to be prepared. They would even save raw food if they thought it would be cooked for them later.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Fall 2019

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