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At Scientific American: Not sure when or how cooking originated but it was decisive in human evolution, says anthropologist

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Large campfire vector illustrationFrom anthropologist Alexandra Rosati at Scientific American:

The shift to a cooked-food diet was a decisive point in human history. The main topic of debate is when, exactly, this change occurred.

But at what point in our evolutionary history was this strange new practice adopted? Some researchers think cooking is a relatively recent innovation—at most 500,000 years old. Cooking requires control of fire, and there is not much archaeological evidence for hearths and purposefully built fires before this time.

The archaeological record becomes increasingly fragile farther back in time, however, so others think fire may have been controlled much earlier. Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has proposed cooking arose before 1.8 million years ago, an invention of our evolutionary ancestors. If the custom emerged this early, it could explain a defining feature of our species: the increase in brain size that occurred around this time. More.

The thesis advanced is that cooking enabled a human brain, with a high metabolic rate, to be nourished.

There is interesting evidence of a relationship between cooking and changes in humans. The problem with any such thesis is that the early human must already have become somewhat intelligent to even be pursuing such goals. The processes around cooking or otherwise preparing food, especially the intentional development of fire as a technology, are not self-evident, at the same level as using stones to smash things or choosing a coconut shell as a shelter.

See also: When humans first used fire remains controversial

and

The search for our earliest ancestors: signals in the noise

3 Replies to “At Scientific American: Not sure when or how cooking originated but it was decisive in human evolution, says anthropologist

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    I’d argue that cooking started with the universal practice of fermentation, not with the difficult and rare event of grabbing a branch from a wildfire. Fermenting grain combusts if you’re not careful, and it can also give controlled heat short of combustion. We know that early humans had a good grasp of fermentation in beer and bread.

  2. 2
    mahuna says:

    Polistra @ 1

    Um, intentional fermentation of soggy grain to produce lightly alcoholic beer is associated with the founding of PERMANENT villages. And is therefore a VERY recent event in human history. Humans had been using fire and herding semi-domesticated animals (to make it more convenient to slaughter then for meat) for TEN OF THOUSANDS of years before that.

    I’m not sure if it’s still there, but some decades back, whilst wandering through its odd corners, I came upon a display at the Field Museum in Chicago of genuine artifacts (from people still using them) of half a dozen DIFFERENT methods for starting a fire without steel or flint. The most fascinating, to me, was a CAREFULLY crafted “piston” (made entirely from wood) that created a burst of flame by violently compressing air. Clearly making fire was NOT a single discovery.

    As an added bonus, one of the SEVERAL “rubbing 2 sticks together” methods employs a bow (as in Bow & Arrow) to spin the vertical stick REALLY fast. This same technique can of course be used to DRILL holes in seashells to make a fancy necklace for Thogetta (hubba-hubba). As with sawing granite with copper, the “drill bit” itself doesn’t need to be harder than the work piece. You simply sprinkle water (or any other convenient liquid) onto the shaft and then dust it with sand. The work piece is then cut by the SAND.

    So from a single tool you get: a “spear thrower” to kill deer with arrows, a firestarter, and a drill. Three entirely UNRELATED jobs solved with a single tool.

    Oh, and the “universal practice of fermentation” was, and IS, never universal. Someone apparently stumbled upon it in the Mid-East, and it spread hit-or-miss from there. All of the “flat breads” still common in the world are of course “unleavened”. And cultures that picked rice as their starch don’t make bread at all.

  3. 3
    Nonlin.org says:

    Why speculate when we have tried and can look at the data?
    Better nutrition leads invariably to larger populations and sometimes to larger body sizes (within limits), but never to human-level intelligence.
    http://nonlin.org/human-evolution/

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