Cooking Made Us Human

Nature soft in mush and gravy?

By Gwydion M. Williams

A new book called Catching Fire suggests that it was cookery that was the decisive change, and that it began very early. The author looks first at humans who’ve tried to live wholly on raw food, and suggests that they fair badly. Then he notes that we have smaller guts than the other apes. Eating meat certainly played a part in it, but humans always have a mixed diet. Cooked food is easier to chew, easier to digest and you absorb more of it. Most plants have starch as their own food-store and it is rather indigestible, anything the plant can do to make itself less edible helps the plant. Humans changed the rules, using various interesting cooking techniques – we find evidence of Neanderthals heating pinecones on fires and breaking them open with stones, just as contemporary hunter-gatherers do to get at the seeds. Cooking also gets rid of parasites, particularly in raw meat. All of this is put in the context of brains getting bigger as the gut gets smaller, and an assumption that cooking techniques got better. There are some interesting examples, though some are a bit disgusting and you should be wary of reading this book while eating your own food.

Where I felt the book went wrong is in not noting that we are the least selfish ape, the ape most likely to co-exist peacefully in large groups. Early studies of chimps and gorillas in the wild showed that they didn’t show the same extreme violence that had been observed in their cousins kept in zoos, kept in a very unnatural environment. But later observations showed groups of chimps waging war on each other, not so peaceful apart from the bonabo or pigmy chimp, where sex is used as a peacemaker. Humans are something else, able to develop social controls. And if our brains allow us to cheat, our brains also inhibit us from cheating. Most people do feel guilt when they break the social code they’ve grown up with, though not everyone and not always enough. In a traditional society, there were very heavy penalties for cheating your own people – cheating strangers was less serious. Developing a clever mind in order to trick others of your own species would be a zero-sum game, the species as a whole would get no benefit and would most likely die out. A successful society has a lot more cooperation than cheating. The US has been departing from the human mainstream as it loses confidence in its older religious faith but angrily rejects socialism as an alternative.

The last part of the book deals with hunter-gatherer societies, with men hunting and women cooking for them, that’s how it is presented. I suspect this side of it is exaggerated, but he does have a valid point that women mostly gather food that is reliably there and hard to process, while men go after meat, fish and honey that are hard to find but easy to process. All in all, it gives you a new view of how humanity may have emerged.

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham. Profile Books 2009.

[One problem with the book’s thesis is that it’s disputed whether humans could control fire so early.  I later had another notion: you can ‘cook’ meat without the use of fire by hanging up thin strips of it to dry in the sun, at least in tropical countries.  There are several forms of this, Biltong https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biltong, Jerkey etc.  Some now use fire but all of them would have been feasible for ape-people unable to control fire.  Extracting, pounding and peeling are also methods. Or using selected moulds to improve, as with cheese and fermented materials.

[It would be interesting to hold a few competitions in Africa, near to where humans are thought to have first evolved.  See what people can come up with for small prizes.  Using no fire or metal, or anything not available to ape-people.  (It would also make for a nice TV program – Cooking Like Our Remote Common Ancestors]

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