Cooking is a distinctive and unique feature of our species. After the success of Eating meat made us human, we continue delving into the nutrition of our ancestors as one of many factors that led us to Homo sapiens. We will analyze the contributions of our readers in the previous post on the importance of carbohydrates and the use of fire.
THE OPPORTUNIST OMNIVOROUS
In the previous post we learned that one factor that contributed to the fast growth of the brain was the increased intake of meat by H. habilis, that allowed them to save energy in digestion (Aiello, L. Wheeler, P, 1995). Another factor that allowed saving energy to dedicate to brain growth, since Lucy, was bipedalism (Adrienne L. Zihlman and Debra R. Bolter, 2015).
One of the things that gave us evolutionary success is our ability to take advantage of almost any food, allowing our expansion around the globe. Current diets are varied and traditionally linked to the availability of the geographical area or time of year, which changed with the development of agriculture and livestock. Human groups studied in historical period without agriculture or livestock, hunt, fish and gather very different foods, but no groups exclusively carnivorous or exclusively vegetarian have been found (except Eskimos, who have traditionally fed on hunting and fishing because of the characteristics of their environment, frozen during almost all the year).
The first tools, possibly used by Australopithecus but obvious since H. habilis, allowed our ancestors to get food that otherwise would have been impossible to get: drilling and tearing flesh, breaking the hard shells of nuts, and later crushing and grinding grain. Thus, the basis of our current supplies are hard cereal grains (e.g. rice, wheat) and the dried seeds of legumes (e.g. lentils), because our needing of protein intake is low, although meat is consumed in excess in the First World countries.
But before the advent of agriculture, our ancestors ate what they found: Neanderthals in hostile areas had to base the diet with meat and supplement it with vegetables when they were available, while in milder climate zones, like the Mediterranean , make use of aquatic resources as molluscs, turtles and fish. Furthermore, by its robust body and increased muscle they needed more protein intake.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CUISINE
As we have seen, seeds are very nutritious because they are rich in carbohydrates (especially starch), but low in protein; in addition, legumes must be cooked to be assimilated. No other animal, except us and our ancestors, prepare food or cooks. Cooking is an unique human trait which opened an infinite number of possibilities in our nutrition.
CONTROL OF FIRE
The first traces of use of fire date back 1.6 million years ago in Africa, although the first reliable evidence is a hearth 0.79 million years old. The responsible: Homo erectus, but those who used fire continuously, especially for cooking, were a later species: Neanderthals.
The advantages of controlling fire were numerous and very important, but in this post we will delve into the first one:
- Cooking and food storage
- Better hunting and scavenging: fire allowed them to obtain prey hunted by large carnivores or direct theirs to natural traps .
- Protection from predators
- Heat: increased survival when temperatures fell.
- Light: they could extend its tasks when night had fallen, favouring social skills and later, the development of language. In addition, changing the circadian rhythm (24h internal clock) could have extended the reproductive period .
- Access to new territories: burning areas of dense vegetation to take dead animals and make use of new areas and encouraging migration to cooler places.
- Improved tools: wood tools made with fire are more durable.
- Better hygiene: burning waste avoided infections.
- Medicine: after H. erectus, the fire has been used as disinfectant and instrument sterilizer and for the preparation of remedies based on medicinal plants, as inhalation of vapors or preparing of infusions.
ADVANTAGES OF COOKING FOOD
- Variety in the diet: certain foodstuff is indigestible raw or difficult to chew (especially for individuals with dental problems). Stewed food is softer and easier to digest, allowing H. erectus expand their diet respect their ancestors, accessing food of higher nutritional value (Richard Wrangham, 2009). Cooking improves the palatability and increases the assimilable carbohydrate availability in tubers, vegetables… and therefore it gives them more energy value. According to Wrangham and other experts, raw foodism can be harmful to health, because our body is adapted to this “pre-digestion” in the stoves, which allows us to be the primate with the shorter digestive system in relation to the body.
- Reduction of the teeth: tusks and teeth could have been reduced due to consumption of cooked food. A tooth that has to bite a boiled potato instead of a raw one can be 82% smaller. Less space were needed for chewing muscles and teeth in the skull, so the mouth and face became smaller. This free space can be dedicated to accommodate an increasingly large brain. H. erectus had a brain 42% larger than H. habilis.
- Less energy consumption: energy and time dedicated to chew and digest cooked food is less, so the number of final calories obtained increases. This energy can be devoted to brain development rather than digesting food.
Possible Neanderthal diet. Photo: Kent Lacin LLC/The Food Passionates/Corbis.
- Fewer diseases: raw food, especially meat, may contain potentially pathogenic or deadly bacteria and parasites. But from certain temperatures, many of these bacteria die, so eating cooked rather than raw, our ancestors increased their survival significantly.
- Less poisoning: some plants, fungi and tubers are toxic if are consumed raw, like some edible mushrooms, sweet potato or potatoes with green areas.
- Food preservation: by smoking meat, it could be kept in good condition for longer and take advantage of it in times of scarcity. In addition, cooked food lasts longer than raw food.
In short, cooking was another factor involved in the brain development and cognitive abilities of our ancestors, allowed energy savings to digest and chew food, decreased masticatory apparatus, allowed the young become earlier independent from their breast-feeding mothers (who could mate more often), improved immune system… Even improved social skills: left more free time so they could dedicate it to other tasks, such as cooperation to keep the fire, planning the collection or capture of food, distribution of food in the group acoording to range and health of individuals… intelligence enhanced cooking techniques, which in turn enhanced the intelligence, in an infinite wheel that still exists today.
- Mateos A, Rodríguez J (2010). La dieta que nos hizo humanos. CENIEH, Burgos.
- Arsuaga J L, Martínez I (2006). La especie elegida. La larga marcha de la evolución humana. Booket divulgación.
- The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution
- Butchered bone suggests earlier start to eating meat
- El dominio del fuego
- La cocina nos hace humanos
- Boniato o batata cruda y dioscorina
- Cooking up bigger brains
- cover picture by Mauricio Antón