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Cooking and Human Origins, Big Kangaroos, Little Dinosaurs | PRI’s The World: Science

Summer, has by fits and starts finally arrived, and for the park-dwelling communities of some Londoners, this means as I observed during a recent visit, that the green open spaces are now dotted here and there with the smoulderingCatchingFire contents – or remains-  of disposable barbecue kits. But rather than complain about this unseemly blight on the parkscapes of the metropolis, it’s worth instead taking a look at exactly how long humanity’s culinary efforts have been sending smoke billowing forth into the atmosphere.

Harvard anthropologist Professor Richard Wrangham has recently published a book, ‘Catching Fire – How Cooking Made Us Human’, (NYT review) and although I haven’t read the contents, it appears he has plenty of interesting thoughts on how our archaic ancestors turned their hands to cooking their food, in one stroke increasing the calorific value of their menu, freeing up vast amounts of time for other activities including ground-breaking innovations such as lithic technology, as well as altering the way in which people began to interact with one another on a social basis.

However, as we’ll see later in this post, the advent of cooking and the abundance in certain eras and areas of fruits and plants that could supplement the human diet, were no guarantee of gastronomic pleasure, and there must have been many times when prehistoric humans wished they had retained an exclusively carnivorous menu, such were the grim prospects of some of the fare that might have been on offer. Moreover, the sweetness of a succulent berry that hides cyanide within, reminds us of the potential health hazards posed by unguardedly helping oneself to nature’s brimming basket, more of which later.

In the first link at PRI’s ‘The World Science’, we hear from Wrangham as he discusses how eating processed cooked meat for example greatly reduces the required digestion time – he cites the example of chimps who have to spend hours each day chewing plant foods and fruits just to maintain their daily regimen. They eat raw meat, but they spend a huge amount of time chewing it – in stark contrast to humans who tend to wolf down enough food for a whole days energy in a matter of minutes.

He describes how our mouths, teeth and digestive tracts are tiny compared to other primates, something he notes that came about at the time of Homo erectus, whose reduced features we can see in the fossil record – no flared ribs, smaller mouth, reduced dentition and masticatory processes. He compares the calorific value of a pound of raw steak and its cooked counterpart; they might weigh the same, but if the body is digesting something soft and further shredded or ground, the digestive energy consumption required is significantly less than needed for chomping one’s way through a raw steak – the prolonged chewing process alone would burn up many more calories than a few quick chews of the Palaeolithic equivalent of a hamburger. Although there is no evidence as yet in the guise of hearths for cooking beyond around 500, 000 years, Wrangham points to the Homo erectus remains going all the way back to 1.8 or 1.9 million years – this may seem a very advanced behaviour for such archaic humans, and the sudden appearance of this gracile form suggests that other factors besides cooking might account for this dramatic decline in hominid robusticity.

It probably helped too that cooked meat tastes a lot better than raw meat, and whether it was this factor that helped seal the deal into cooked meals from the Lower Palaeolithic onwards, rather than the energy gains derived from cookery isn’t known, but we can imagine then as now, the smell of food cooking as one approached camp in the evening, would have raised the spirits of even the earliest of our Homo erectus forebears, thus helping to forge bonds with the community and fostering ideas of the welcome smells of home, however temporary or seasonal those homes may have been.

Following his observations of chimpanzees as they went about their daily eating schedule, he noted how they sometimes add a leaf – dead or alive – to their occasional meals of fresh meat – which by all accounts they scoff down with gusto – and he believes the added leaf gives the slippery meat traction and thus making it easier for them to chew. As it is, they spend around 6 hours a day just chewing, and as these hours are interspersed with hour-long naps, that’s the equivalent of what used to be the normal eight hour day worked by employed modern humans.

As a brief aside, some might wonder whether all that progress, whereby we’ve evolved from spending 8 hours a day eating and napping to, one where billions of our species are obliged to work gruelling 8-16 hour days most days of the week, just to pay for food and shelter, was a good trade-off for humankind.

Wrangham proposes that males and females originally cooked their own food, but believes that opportunistic males worked out how they could exploit females, first by forcing them to cook for them, and then offering protection against other males who were similarly disinclined to cook for themselves – he contends, a female cooking food for herself and mate could deter would-be thieves by threatening retaliatory action when her man returned – presumably from hunting. I daresay there will be objections to this somewhat stereotypical depiction of gender divided labour, but Wrangham makes the point that wherever he’s encountered foraging tribes-people, and even those wherein women share a more egalitarian platform within a given society, it’s still invariably the women who get lumped not only with all the cooking, but the general cleaning chores as well.

There is a brief discussion as to how the origins of this arrangement may have begun, partly as a protection racket by males – if she feeds her man, he offers protection against other males who might have considered stealing her food for themselves, and so on.

In common with some theories of why bipedalism evolved is the notion that cooking freed up the human to invest a great deal more time in making stone tools, processing animal carcasses and hides, and probably more onerous tasks such as chopping and gathering fire-wood to fuel the fires on which the food was to be cooked – so we can see that although cooking may have freed up more time, much of that extra time was immediately consumed, because it was essential to spend many hours per Palaeo-day engaged in life’s many labours.

Before switching our attention to the woodlands of England and an ultimately fruitless quest to peer into the culinary past of our Mesolithic forebears, there’s just time to say it’s worth listening to the remaining items in the PRI podcast, as well of course to the other points raised by Wrangham that I haven’t mentioned here. There’s a reference to the 11,000 year-old granaries recently discovered in Jordan, and an interesting snippet on why dinosaurs may not have been as big as once thought.

In his PRI discussion, Wrangham made brief reference something termed the darker side of cooking, and although this next video feature probably isn’t precisely what he had in mind, some of images conjured within certainly makes me understand why Neanderthals for example – and climate notwithstanding – stuck to eating reindeer every day for thousands of years on end. As we see from this clip, which is at YouTube, and commented upon by weekend anthropologist and full-time TV comedian Harry Hill, it’s as well in this day and age to take with you a good packed lunch as a bare minimum, if you’re planning on spending any more than a few hours away from your normal food sources, as life in the wilds can soon become somewhat unappetising.

Despite the somewhat irreverent depiction of Ray Mears  – and his companion Gordon – in this clip, there are nevertheless a couple of things worth pointing out. We know for example that from at least the Bronze Age and probably earlier, hot rocks and heated stones were used in the preparation of food, a departure from the camp-fire derived spit-roast, kebabs and cinders that we might normally associate with prehistoric cookery.

The drying of fruit – as well as the drying of meat, (and even freezing) as mentioned in my earlier post on Neanderthals – and storage thereof, doubtless played significant roles in the Palaeolithic cuisine. Of note too was the basketry item in which the brown mush was prepared – as I’ll be noting in a forthcoming post, basketry is another overlooked technology that also played a huge part in our past, as indeed it does in the present, as illustrated by the Hopi kachina tradition.

But the final item on this post is something Professor Wrangham mentioned, in which he related how the origin of the word ‘companion’ is derived from the act of sharing bread with one or more other humans, or indeed their household pets, and even pigeons in the park.

image from Kibale Chimpanzee Project

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