22 Oct 2020
What makes us human? Some would argue that it’s the act of cooking — whether it’s boiling, broiling, roasting, baking, or barbecuing — that separates us from every other species on Earth.
In 1999, Harvard professor of biological anthropology Richard Wrangham published an article in the Current Anthropology journal called “The Raw and the Stolen: Cooking and the Ecology of Human Origins.” Known as “the cooking hypothesis,” Wrangham’s groundbreaking new theory of human evolution proposed that taming fire to cook food changed the course of human evolution.
In his article and his 2009 book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Wrangham argued that cooking allowed our human ancestors to process food more efficiently — and this change had a profound impact on evolution. While all other animals eat raw foods, Wrangham theorized that our ancestors began cooking their food some 1.8 million years ago, a change that gave early man the ability to process food more efficiently. It takes a long time, and a very large jaw and teeth, to grind down raw meat and plant matter. Before our ancestors learned how to cook, Wrangham estimated that half of their waking hours were spent simply chewing enough food to subsist, leaving little time for anything else. Cooking alters the chemical structure of food, breaking down the connective tissues in meat, and softening the cells of plants to release their starches and fats. This makes cooked food easier to chew and digest. This also helps the body to use less energy to convert food into calories. Once the cooking was introduced, he estimated that our ancestors had an extra four hours in their day — time that could be spent hunting, foraging, and slowly beginning to organize into societies. Wrangham explained, “The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology, and society.”
This higher calorie, higher-quality diet lead to the evolution of bigger brains and bodies, and smaller jaws and teeth—a transformation that gradually resulted in modern man. From the control of fire and the growth in brain size, it’s not such a large leap to the development of dedicated hearths, the introduction of pottery and other tools for cooking, and the domestication of plants and animals.
(Also Read – What eating healthy looks like)
Wrangham’s theory is, of course, just that: a theory. Archaeological history to support control of fire 1.8 million years ago has not yet been found, but the recent discovery of ash in a South African cave suggests that our ancestors were controlling fire at least 1 million years ago — far earlier than previous evidence suggested. It may be just a matter of time before definitive evidence that proves Wrangham’s theory is found.
And If Wrangham’s theory is correct, we truly are what we eat.
If cooking is so fundamental to our evolution as people, it is a wonder that we don’t have time to make home-cooked meals with wholesome ingredients. Modern life has created many barriers to our ability to prepare home-cooked meals. What do we do if we don’t have time for home cooking? Businesses like CookinGenie can help you bring cooking where it belongs—in your own kitchen—even when you don’t have time to cook yourself. Check out our menus, and book your Genie today for building healthy eating habits in the family.