Cooking – A Great Leap Forward in Human Evolution

By | August 31st, 2011|Dinosaur and Prehistoric Animal News Stories, Main Page, Palaeontological articles|0 Comments

Processed Food – Not Too Bad After All if our Ancestors are Anything To Go By

The ability to process food, to make it more edible, easier to digest and to breakdown in the human gut to release nutrients, may have helped hominids to gain the upper hand when it came to competing with other predators back in the Pleistocene and earlier.  Indeed, a paper published in the scientific journal “The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, postulates that processed food, given such a bad press today may have helped humans gain an evolutionary advantage.

Compared to other extant primates, our species H. sapiens spends only one tenth the amount of time eating compared to a chimpanzee.  The new research suggests that processing food without the use of fire may date back more than two million years and it could have accelerated human evolution.  Raw food eating primates such as chimpanzees spend nearly fifty percent of their day eating, modern humans devote less than five percent of each day to this vital task – thanks to our diet and the way that we treat foodstuffs.

As well as spending much less time eating than chimpanzees and other apes, humans have also evolved far smaller teeth, jaws and guts.  The physical changes could not have evolved without the introduction of food processing, say the scientists from Harvard University (USA), a university that has produced a number of scientific papers recently on the cooking and eating habits of our ancestors.

According to the new study, there is evidence that this occurred with the emergence of Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of modern humans that evolved around 1.9 million years ago.  The research team carried out a comparative study using non-human primates, modern humans and fourteen extinct hominids.  The team analysed molar sizes, body masses, DNA, and other characteristics to infer when the pattern of reduced eating times began.  They found that H. erectus, its descendants H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens evolved smaller molars compared with other primates; a shift not explicable by the amount of overall evolution in the jaws and heads of these species.  Processing foods with tools and fire would have softened edibles and therefore allowed smaller molars and reduced eating time. The authors’ research suggests that food processing originated after the human-chimpanzee split and before H. erectus.  This study therefore suggests that the likes of H.erectus may have been the first to process food, not cooking as we know today but perhaps by using fire and the bashing of meat to make it more easy to digest.

The stateside based authors, led by Dr Chris Organ, from Harvard University, wrote:

“Food processing would have provided higher caloric intake in the ancestors of modern humans, which likely bestowed significant advantages on reproductive success and survival.  Malnutrition resulting from a committed raw food diet strongly suggests that eating cooked and processed food is necessary for long-term survival of wild foods in Homo sapiens.  This hypothesis explains the small teeth, jaws and guts of modern humans and the universal importance that cooking has played in cultures throughout recorded history.”

Richard Wrangham, also of Harvard University produced a book back in 2009, that examined the evolution of cooking and its role in the development of our own species – a sort of scientific reaffirmation of the old saying “you are what you eat”.

Professor Wrangham (Ruth Moore Professor of Anthropology at and Chair of Biological Anthropology at Harvard), argued that the invention of cooking, even more than agriculture, the eating of meat, or the advent of tools is what led to the rise of humanity.

Wrangham’s book entitled, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,”  makes the case that the ability to harness fire and cook food allowed the brain to grow and the digestive tract to shrink, giving rise to our ancestor Homo erectus some 1.8 million years ago.

Professor Wrangham stated at the time his book was published:

“Cooking is the signature feature of the human diet, and indeed, of human life.  It’s the development that underpins many other changes that have made humans so distinct from other species.”

Drawing on a wide body of research, Wrangham made the case that cooking made eating faster and easier, and enabled our ancestors to gain more caloric benefit from food.  Moreover, he theorises that cooking is vitally important to supporting the outsize human brain, which consumes a quarter of the body’s energy.

This new research builds on some of the earlier Harvard University work.  This new study concludes:

“Humans are able to spend less time feeding because they typically consume higher-quality food than chimpanzees, and because they use cooking and non-thermal processing to render more calories available from food. Cooking and non-thermally processing foods also reduces food particle size and increases starch gelatinisation, which results in earlier bolus formation and swallowing.  These facts suggest that a dramatic increase in caloric intake from cooking and non-thermally processing food played an important role in shaping our evolutionary history.”

Perhaps back in the early part of the Pleistocene epoch, our direct ancestor, the hominid known as H. erectus was enjoying his or her very own version of “Master Chef”.

H. erectus has been the focus of a number of scientific papers this month, a team of experts announced the discovery of a portion of a prehistoric hominid skull, believed to be more than 170,000 years old.  This fragment of skull was unearthed near the French town of Nice, the Lazaret Caves – an excavation site that has yielded over 20,000 fossils.

Students Ludovic Dolez and Sebastian Lepvraud were working on the excavation site and discovered the skull fragment on the 13th August, part of a forehead belonging to a Homo erectus.

Palaeontologist Marie-Antoinette de Lumley, in charge of the dig site stated:

“It belonged to a nomad hunter, less than 25 years old.  He may be able to teach us more about the evolution of his successor, the Neanderthal man.”

The bone was left to dry for a few days where it was discovered, before being removed for a special public announcement attended by the mayor of Nice and other local officials.