Preparing Food and Cooking Over Fire Still Hot After 1.8 Million Years

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People cook. It’s a simple, factual statement—but stop to think about it. We cook for work, we cook for pleasure, and we inevitably cook to survive. To the best of anthropological knowledge, cooking with fire is universal amongst humans; it’s a practice that we’ve probably handed down, person to person, from at or before the beginning of our species. More than just a job or a hobby or a chore, cooking is one of the foundations of our worldwide human culture.

The Question of Fire

Richard Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, has argued that the use of fire for cooking began 1.8 million years ago. He makes this argument based on personal experience with the chimpanzee diet, which he found extremely unpleasant. He suggests that our chimp-like hominid ancestors must have had the idea of cooking their food before eating, making it easier to consume and more palatable. However, the earliest physical evidence of fire use amongst our ancestors dates to only about 500,000 years ago. Nonetheless, Wrangham’s argument does point to the fact that our more advanced hominids who were already using fire also already had smaller jaws and larger brains. Because the complex brain is such an energy hog, they needed more efficient sources of food. Cooking provided that, regardless of when our ancestors began taking advantage of it.

More Efficient Nutrition

Raw food is fibrous, tough and requires more energy to consume and digest. Cooking, on the other hand, breaks down fibrous material and makes the tasks much easier. This means that people eating cooked have to expend much less energy than we would gnawing away on raw veggies and meats. Cooking also makes calories more biologically available for uptake during digestion. Thus, cooking provides a double win: more energy gained with less energy expended. There is a certain segment of the population who insists that raw is the most ideal, natural human diet. Raw-foodies are frequently underweight, not to mention undernourished. Women who eat exclusively raw often stop menstruating; to put it another way, eating an exclusively raw diet does not provide enough energy to maintain reproductive capability. If you need proof that a raw diet is anathemic to human nutrition and evolution, look no further.

More Complex Anatomy

As a result of the change in their diet, our ancestor’s mouths began to change. They no longer needed extended canine teeth to tear meat, nor did they need wisdom teeth to grind dense vegetable matter. What they needed was a jaw and mouth that could make more versatile and nuanced sounds to reflect an expanding intellect, especially the ability to think abstractly and symbolically; they needed verbal communication. This need stemmed from (and also facilitated the further development of) a more advanced brain. Our brains are sizeable, be sure, but size isn’t everything. The important part is the well-developed cortex, the most visible part of the brain. This is the locus of conscious thought and intellect, partially because of its expansiveness but also because of the incredible density of its neurons. The vast interaction of electrochemical processes that occurs therein requires an appreciable amount of energy—fully a fifth of our resting output—to maintain. Because this energy is available, humans developed language and arts and science (not in the least because we were bored and curious). So, in a very real sense, cooking is one of the staunchest pillars of our entire civilization. The best part of our impressive brains is that they let us continue to cultivate, along with our society and culture, our ability to cook. This has given us culinary delights like sushi, filet mignong and funnel cakes. But we wouldn’t have any of it if not for that first leap—whether reasoned, intuitive or accidental—of using fire to prepare food.