“And how would you like that cooked?” [The Ancient History of Cooking]

February 21, 2012

If we take a look at the current lineup of possible human ancestors and distant relatives, one can pick out several lines of change. Compare some of the earliest hominids, like Ardipithecus ramidus with a modern human and the differences are obvious. Living about 4.4 million years ago, Ardipithecus was a tall, tree-climbing and bipedal fellow. They were omnivores, eating a mix of plants, meat and fruit.

Modern humans are omnivores as well, although there are many people choosing to eat only vegetable matter. Some early human relatives, such as Neanderthals may have been top-level carnivores. Anthropologists and especially paleoanthropologists, have studied diet among early humans for a long time. Two events had a major impact on human diet: the mastery of fire and the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Of these two milestones, mastery of fire came well before agriculture. While some argue that early hominids mastered fire in Africa as early as 1.5 million years ago, others place it at perhaps 400,000 to 500, 000 years ago. With a range like this, it should be obvious that it remains hard to pinpoint when exactly this happened, especially when one relies on archaeological evidence. One might wonder: “what other evidence is there then?” Read on and find out.

The advent of agriculture and animal husbandry is a much more recent phenomenon, and therefore relatively more easy to date. Experiments involving plants may have been underway some 12,500 years ago. Cattle was domesticated in Egypt by 9000 BC.

Traditionally, the mastery of fire was seen as a catalyst for a series of evolutionary changes in early humans. With fire, it was argued, one could not only stay warm, keep predators at bay, even engage in art in the back of dark caves, but also cook one’s food. The latter then permitted rapid brain growth and before one knows it, we are off to the races, with rapid changes in technology leading to humans becoming more and more in charge of their environment.

Recently, new voices have been heard in this debate. In studies followed around the world, Dr. Richard Wrangham argues that cooking started at 1.9 million years ago, much earlier than traditionally assumed. With cooked food, we could chew and eat our food in an hour, instead of the six hours chimps need to chew theirs. With cooked food, we no longer needed a large gut, and with a reduction in size of our intestinal track, there was a reduction in energy spent on maintaining our gut. These savings could then go toward fueling our brain growth. The appearance of Homo erectus, the first hominid species with our body form, and the appearance of mastering fire drove human evolution to where we are today, according to Dr. Wrangham. In Dr. Wrangham’s words: “Cooking was not invented by humans; it was invented by pre-humans and it made us human.”

Dr. Richard Wrangham will speak at HMNS on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

According to Dr. Wrangham, mastering fire and getting used to cooking food led to further changes in social behavior among early humans. To see what these are, join us for Dr. Wrangham’s lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, sponsored by The Leakey Foundation on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human”
Richard Wrangham, Ph.D., Harvard University
Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by The Leakey Foundation
Click here to purchase tickets.

Ever since Darwin and “The Descent of Man,” the existence of humans has been attributed to our intelligence and adaptability. Renowned primatologist Richard Wrangham presents a startling alternative: our evolutionary success is the result of cooking. In a groundbreaking theory of our origins, Dr. Wrangham will show that the shift from raw to cooked foods was the key factor in human evolution.

When our ancestors adapted to using fire, humanity began.

Once our hominid ancestors began cooking their food, the human digestive tract shrank and the brain grew. Time once spent chewing tough raw food could be sued instead to hunt and to tend camp. Cooking became the basis for pair bonding and marriage, created the household, and even led to a sexual division of labor.

Tracing the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, Dr. Wrangham sheds new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today. A path-breaking new theory of human evolution, Dr. Wrangham will fascinate anyone interested in our ancient origins or in our modern eating habits.

Dr. Richard Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is co-director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, the long-term study of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda. His research culminates in the study of human evolution in which he draws conclusions based on the behavioural ecology of apes. As a graduate student, Dr. Wrangham studied under Robert Hinde and Jane Goodall. He also helped the late Dian Fossey establish her eponymous Gorilla Fund to protect and research the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda.

Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

One response to ““And how would you like that cooked?” [The Ancient History of Cooking]”

  1. Bill Bagby says:

    Cooking most probably played a major role in speciation events post erectus (e.g. heidelbergensis, antecessor), but from habilis to erectus would have required cooking at c 1.9 mya. Not impossible, but would seem a bit of a stretch for the habilines.

    Still, the energy trade off of a bigger brain for a smaller gut would seem to require a higher quality diet. Which suggests meat, irrespective of preparation method.

    Will be interesting to see the earliest dates for cooking.

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