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The Cooking Hypothesis

Notes/opinions/learnings from: Catching Fire: How cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.(Part 1/5)

What made us human? Wrangham believes it stems from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals a theory that he establishes as The Cooking Hypothesis.

The Evolution of humans:

  1. Australopithecines: characterised as nonhuman apes, size of chimpanzees and had ape-like muzzles and sized bellies.

  2. Habilines:  missing link between apes and humans. They were discovered in 1960 in the form of a jaw, skull in Tanzania. They were the same size as Australopithecines with long arms and jutting faces. Yet they made knives, and had brains twice the size of Australopithecines.

  3. Homo Erectus: They have the same physical appearance as us but their brains are smaller and have lower foreheads.

The first transition between Australopithecines and Habilines was due to their meat eating habits. The first meat eaters would have been slow at catching meat and a lot of teamwork must have been necessary, it probably caused long distance travel, bigger bodies and rising intelligence. The man the hunter hypothesis has been popular to explain the change between Australopithecines and Habilines. However, it is incomplete because there were many times man returned without meat. Gatherers were often woman and cultivated food that was absent in Australopithecines. (I remember, in our culture studies classes how this theory was questioned. We have assigned gender roles in hunter and gatherers because hunter bodies were found outside in the forrest while gatherers were found grouped together. However, we have not questioned as to why their corpses were buried as such. It could have been of of certain rituals, cultural reasons.)

The second transition between Habilines and Homo Erectus was possibly because of fire. Homo Erectus had smaller teeth and weaker mouths. Animals need food, water and shelter but humans need fire too.  To the Andaman Islanders, fire is “the first thing they think of carrying when they go on a journey,” “the center round which social life moves” and as something that differentiated them from animals. (AR Radcliffe-brown, The Andaman Islanders: A study in Social Anthropology).   Little change has happened since Homo Erectus, 2 million years ago. Most anthropologists have taken Darwins assumption that cooking has been a late addition to human skill, meaning that we could survive without fire. From my recent studies, on science and cooking I have learnt that fire or heat is not the only way to cook, changing levels of ph and using condiments like salt can cook food. A century later, Claude Lévi-Strauss said that cooking establishes the difference between animals and people. “Not only does cooking mark the transition from nature to culture but through it by means of it, the human state can be defines with all its attributes.” (Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked).

Cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from our food. We survive and reproduce better causing changes to anatomy, physiology, ecology, history, society, psychology etc. Micheal Symons, in 1998, said that cooking is the missing link that defines human essence, and that humanity is pinned on cooks.

All of this is the cooking hypothesis. In summary:

  1. This theory proposes that our brain became significantly larger than our ancestor’s because of cooking with fire.

  2. Cooking had a profound evolutionary effect because it allowed our human ancestors the ability to process food more efficiently.

  3. This allowed for less time spent on foraging, chewing, and processing foods.  Cooking allowed for predigesting foods. This made eating easier and quicker for our guts to absorb calories due to the fact that eating cooked meat instead of raw meat, takes less energy to digest.

  4. Cooked meat increased energy that would have been otherwise used to chew raw foods throughout the day and allowed for a smaller more efficient digestive tract.

  5. Considering this change, less energy was spent in digesting foods and instead was diverted toward the expansion of the brain.

An interesting analysis of this theory has been done by: Liesl Driver, from the Department of Anthropology Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

#catchingfirehowcookingmadeushuman #FoodStudies #book #Richardwrangham #cookinghypothesis

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