Cooking and Human Evolution

From Scientific American, a piece on the "Cooking Hypothesis" (which yours truly helped develop some years back).

Our hominid ancestors could never have eaten enough raw food to support our large, calorie-hungry brains, Richard Wrangham claims. The secret to our evolution, he says, is cooking

Cooking does indeed turn a lot of stuff that is not edible to humans (or any primate) into usable energy. We think the increase in body size that comes along with the genus Homo (with Homo erectus and kin) is itself a biological signal of cooking.

The problem with his idea: proof is slim that any human could control fire that far back. Other researchers believe cooking did not occur until perhaps only 500,000 years ago. Consistent signs of cooking came even later, when Neandertals were coping with an ice age. "They developed earth oven cookery," says C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "And that only goes back a couple hundred thousand years." He and others postulate that the introduction of energy-rich, softer animal products, not cooking, was what led to H. erectus's bigger brain and smaller teeth.

Yes, indeed, people do argue about the evidence for early fire. I am convinced that there is sufficient evidence in the early Paleolithic of fire to assume that these later dates proposed by Brace and others are wrong, and that controlled use of fire may well date to nearly 2.0 million years ago.

If you want to read the first peer reviewed paper outlining this idea, you can get it here.

More like this

Science has a fascinating review about the history of cooking and its relation to human evolution. Richard Wrangham, a Harvard primatologist, has been pushing the idea that the expansion in Homo erectus' skull size was the result of additional energy released by cooking meat: What spurred this…
Get to know that little skull. Scientists are going to be talking about it for centuries. As researchers report in tomorrow's issue of Nature, the skull--and along with other parts of a skeleton--turned up in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Several different dating methods gave the same…
Can you believe this guy? Check it out: The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once proposed that humanity began with cooking. [a Twin Cities anthropologist] says love may have begun with cooking, as well. ... The earliest human ancestors, some kind of chimp-like apes, were living off raw…
A few weeks ago I commented on Richard Wrangham's discussion with Robert Wright. Though most of the conversation was given over to the arguments in Wrangham's latest book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, I focused on the older Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. One of…

Yes, a very good paper, and even better for recognising that carbohydrate-rich plant foods could contribute much more to usable energy than meat. (100gm of beef actually has nearly 3 times as much energy as 100gm of yam, but that is solely due to its fat content - 100gm of antelope has exactly the same calories as yam - it's not likely that early humans hunted prime beefsteak). Yams are also more easy to obtain than antelopes.

The orthodox, widely held, and now lazily-maintained theory that male hunting/meat eating led to human brain development simply doesn't accord with basic dietary facts. The gathering part of hunting/gathering did very much more, forcing the development of cognition (searching, pattern-matching, communication of results, etc) and could be done by women and children as well as men.

But another food source for early humans that has been almost completely ignored, also better than meat, in every way, are insects. Some of your Paranthropic digging-sticks seem to have been used for grubbing up termites.

I wrote some articles about this a couple of years ago, at:

I haven't checked these lately - I hope I wasn't as sarcastic about your paper as I was about some of the classic studies.

I am certainly not a feminist, or a vegetarian, so my stance on this aspect of human development is not 'political'.

For nutrition values, see: