1.8 Million Years of Cooking

Today’s New York Times includes a short, but fascinating interview, “A Conversation with Richard Wrangham: From Studying Chimps, a Theory on Cooking.”

What caught my attention was his theory, which he apparently expands on in his upcoming book, “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” that cooking, rather than tool making and meat eating, was the main factor in man’s early evolution.

How Cooking Made Us Human (Richard Wrangham)

How Cooking Made Us Human (Richard Wrangham)

…our large brain and the shape of our bodies are the product of a rich diet that was only available to us after we began cooking our foods. It was cooking that provided our bodies with more energy than we’d previously obtained as foraging animals eating raw food.

Studying modern chimpanzees, he noticed that much of the chimps diet consisted of “extremely fibrous foods,” which required a lot of time sitting around chewing.  According to Mr. Wrangham, once early humans learned to cook, their evolution accelerated since their diet was now “richer, healthier and required less eating time.”

Sounds like fast food has been around a lot longer than I thought.  Perhaps Eric Schlosser needs to write a prequel to Fast Food Nation.

There are clearly differences between earlier fast (“less eating time”) food and today’s highly efficient and arguably unsustainable cousin is community.

…once you had communal fires and cooking and a higher-calorie diet, the social world of our ancestors changed, too. Once individuals were drawn to a specific attractive location that had a fire, they spent a lot of time around it together. This was clearly a very different system from wandering around chimpanzee-style, sleeping wherever you wanted, always able to leave a group if there was any kind of social conflict.

Now compare these community oriented, almost slow food type eating experiences with today’s fast food diet:

[Author asked if today’s man has adapted to McDonald’s, pizza]  I think we’re adapted to our diet. It’s that our lifestyle is not. We’re adapted in the sense that our bodies are designed to maximize the amount of energy we get from our foods. So we are very good at selecting the foods that produce a lot of energy. However, we take in far more than we need. That’s not adaptive.

What really amazes me is that today’ man, with our vast technologies and industries, can’t figure out how to get families to spend a lot of time together eating richer, healthier food.  Is it possible that our industrial food system doesn’t care about such things?  Regardless, what is the significance of American’s either eating out or eating prepared meals nearly half the time?  Is this putting the species at risk of devolving?

OK, so I’m having a little fun with this. There are serious problems in our food system and I believe that reversing our migration away from our kitchens and being able to cook sustainable foods has the potential to be the “main factor” in improving our health and the health of our planet, building stronger regional economies, and strengthening our families.

A tall order, but far better than the typical response of throwing technology at the problem.

Related Information and Links:


11 responses to “1.8 Million Years of Cooking

  1. Thank you for this post, Rob. I am just starting to read a book called Pickled, Potted, and Canned – How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World. It takes you through how various preservation techniques were developed and ultimately how preserving got us away from being just hunter/gatherers. Sounds like similar concepts.

    • Amy, thanks for the comment regarding the book you are reading. When you finish and if you think of it, please share your thoughts either here or via email (robert.b.smart@gmail.com). Cheers!

  2. So does this mean that the raw food movement = cultural devolution? Hmm…

    • Good point, David. I was so fixated on the cooking aspect that his mention of raw foods slipped by. He seems to indicate that raw foods would not be able to adequately nourish today’s human, but I am guessing there are cultures eating primarily raw diets that might challenge the assumption.

  3. Yes we really do not need anymore technology simply thrown at the problem. But if there are technologies out there that can add to the availability of local regional food systems then they should not always be tarnished. Not that that is what you are saying at all. I am not sure that fast food is directly involved in devolving our species, but indirectly, a philosophy that takes away from our inherent communities (family being the most primal community) is one that ultimately is destructive! great post rob and a great find on the book!

    • Zachary: I have spent the last 18 years working in “technology” industries, and American’s quality of life is far better off with technological improvements than without. And while there are definitely “technologies” that might contribute to getting local and regional food to more people (the Internet and wireless infrastructure come to mind), what I believe will make the biggest difference is getting more people involved, especially on farms and in kitchens. We have to rebuild the infrastructure and experiences between local supply and local demand. What a great challenge!

  4. David — I think that an entirely raw diet isn’t natural to humans at all. I can see a case for it in some radical circumstances, like cancer treatment. (I personally know two people who healed cancer unconventionally by switching to an entirely raw foods diet.) But on the whole, cooked food is a good thing.

    The problem is that we (particularly Americans) do far too much of it. Traditional diets around the world are typically 60-80% raw or fermented. In the U.S., less than 10% of our diet fits in those categories as we go to great lengths to kill every living thing we might ingest for hygiene and sanitation reasons. We not only pasteurize our milk, but we pasteurize our nuts, irradiate our produce & spices, etc. And we no longer traditionally ferment foods like cheese, sour cream, yogurt, sourdough bread, pickles, sauerkraut, etc. Instead we’ve found “safer” and “cleaner” ways to imitate these traditional living foods with dead, cooked equivalents.

    All that to say, cooking is good. But if you want to eat food the way your body evolved to eat food and in accordance with the good health of traditional people groups, you should still try to get more than half your calories from raw or fermented foods.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

    • Spoken like a true Food Renegade. Seriously, your comment was educational with a rich historical context, and prescriptive in offering a diet that balances raw and fermented foods with cooked foods. If you have blog posts related to this topic, please feel free to add links to a follow-on comment. I will definitely click on each to learn more. Cheeers!

  5. Thanks, Rob.

    Here are some basic posts about raw, living, and fermented foods and their place in our diet:




    They’re mostly just introductions to the ideas involved, but they’re a good place to start.

    All the best,
    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  6. Scientifically, we (though not me) do seem kind of hung up on taking food apart and putting it back together again. Reference the insistence by some nutritionists that regardless of any individual’s health status or at-risk tendencies, dietary supplements are a necessity, because the natural food supply is “vapid” and our environment has become toxin-rich.

    But conversely, we continue to learn that extracting and fragmenting nutrient compounds for ingestion is no where near as effective, even sometimes deleterious, because of the synergistic and sometimes protective effect that exists in mother nature’s pre-formed packages — I mean this for the well population at large, those at identified risk for various chronic health conditions or with active diagonses certainly can and do benefit from naturopathic approaches. So what’s wrong with focusing on re-enriching our earth’s supply and focusing on getting food to be as nutrient/antioxidant/phytochemical rich as possible? Why not fix the root of the problem instead of put a band-aid or quick-fix “pop-a-pill” solution on it?

    Sorry to slip off topic, but apparently some phytochemicals are better absorbed and utilized by a heat release than eaten raw

    Kind of ironic that during this era of high profile culinary arts there’s a determined effort to convince that food alone can’t nourish us, after all, people do actually enjoy eating good food. and as much as they want to stay well and healthy, taking a supplemental pill has no sensory appeal or appetite satisfaction to it at all

    Maybe the chimps had already figured that out

  7. Pingback: NEW - Bex*blog » Blog Archive » Zorgt raw food voor devolutie?

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