Sunday, October 31, 2010

Man the First Animal Shaped by Cooking

Here's a bit from an excellent post on the Neuroanthropology blog:
Richard Wrangham is Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthrpology at Harvard University, with a strong background in the study of chimpanzees. Wrangham argues that hominins began cooking their food 1.8 million years ago (mya) even though the earliest evidence of controlling fire is, at best, half that old. He points to the diet of chimpanzees:

Richard Wrangham has tasted chimp food, and he doesn’t like it. “The typical fruit is very unpleasant,” the Harvard University biological anthropologist says of the hard, strangely shaped fruits endemic to the chimp diet, some of which look like cherries, others like cocktail sausages. “Fibrous, quite bitter. Not a tremendous amount of sugar. Some make your stomach heave.” (from Cooking Up Bigger Brains)

Wrangham has elaborated the argument in a number of his academic papers (for an excellent review, see Wrangham and Conklin-Brittain 2003). He’s also argued that the kind of raw bush meat that chimpanzees eat – usually smaller monkeys, and even then only the mature males get it – is tough and unpleasant, with large portions of it in skin and fur that don’t go down easy, by any stretch.

Wrangham’s theory is controversial in anthropology, and I don’t fully agree with him, but he does put his finger on the complexity of the brain-jaw trade-off in human evolution. Our ancestors were steadily growing larger brains, energy-hungry organs, while the on-board apparatus that they used to get energy out of food (teeth, jaws, guts) was diminishing in effectiveness. Our ancestors had to come up with some sort of better solution, either better food or stronger food processors.
This is just a "taste" of the extensive post on cooking and our evolution. Go read the whole post. It is well worth your time!

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