Love in the Time of Coriander

Thoughts on food & more.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Homo Culinaris

This eyebrow-raising article appeared in The Advocate today. When I've doubted my humanity, I can always enter the kitchen to reclaim it.

Professor Says We Are What We Eat

Richard W. Wrangham, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, drew applause from the International Association of Culinary Professionals crowd when he said that "cooking may be the key to what makes us human."

Wrangham admitted that his hypothesis is radical. Some anthropologists dismiss cooking and describe it as something humans do for symbolic reasons, he said.

Wrangham disagrees and maintains that Charles Darwin looks increasingly perceptive in his claim that the art of making fire may have been the greatest discovery ever made.

Wrangham bases his conclusion that it is cooking that prompted human evolution on years of study of chimpanzees and aboriginal tribes in isolated areas of the world. Human beings are the only living species who cook their food, he reported to the IACP members in his presentation on the "Significance of Paleo-Gastronomy."

Chimpanzees will seek seeds that have been cooked in bush fires and thus tenderized to eat, Wrangham said, but they never developed the skills to make fire and control it to cook food. What this means, he explained, is that chimpanzees and all other apes, as well, spend 5 to 6 hours a day chewing and eating because raw foods take longer to eat and digest. Humans, on the other hand, take an hour to eat a day's worth of food, which is a 2,000-calorie diet.

As early humans developed the ability to cook foods, which could have been anywhere from 300,000 to 1.9 million years ago, human physiology began to evolve. Humans began to have smaller mouths and jaws and shorter digestive systems than apes. "We are the cookivore," Wrangham observed, because now humans must consume softer foods, low-bulk and high-energy diets. "We have more energy, but less digestive ability," he continued.

Critics of cooked foods, and there is a raw foods movement in the world, Wrangham pointed out, say "Look at chimpanzees. They eat raw and thrive."

Chimpanzees, he re-emphasized, spend far more time eating than humans do and as a result don't have time or energy to expand far beyond their range. In German research studies on the effects on humans of following a raw food diet, the results show that humans eating only raw food are hungry, experience weight loss and, in the case of women, quit having regular menstrual cycles, which means that the rate of reproduction is precariously lowered.

"It seems difficult for me to deny the evidence that the evolution of man came with the discovery of fire and cooking," Wrangham said. "Cooking changed the biological design of humans, and that fact is the basis of paleo-gastronomy," he added.

"Being able to spend a low percent of time eating made hunting possible and expanded the range of humans out of Africa and into Asia," Wrangham said. Cooking also prompted the sexual division of labor: men, being bigger and stronger, hunted, and women provisioned and cooked.

Cooking created the human family or civilization, where humans not only assumed tasks suited to their skills but also put those skills to work in taking care of one another. You hunted for the group or family, as well as yourself. Or, you cooked for the hunter, as well as yourself.

Wrangham believes that it is important to recognize the universality of the evening hot meal. For 2 million years, humans have gathered around the fire each night. Why, we may not fully understand, but the fact remains that "humans are adapted to the hearth," Wrangham said, "and apparently it's this cooking and gathering that makes us human."

8 Comments:

At 4:16 AM, Blogger Anthony said...

When I've doubted my humanity, I can always enter the kitchen to reclaim it.

Did you coin this? It's fabulous.

 
At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Charlie said...

That's close, but it's not cooking, it's brewing.

Actually, brewing _*IS*_ cooking. In a way.

Charlie

 
At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Peter said...

Actually Chimpanzees hunt monkeys using group tactics as do other animals. Not sure I see how cooking supports that. The overall premise is interesting though.

 
At 4:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In German research studies on the effects on humans of following a raw food diet, the results show that humans eating only raw food are hungry, experience weight loss ....."

I suspect people who maintain raw diets eat little or no fat such as contained in animal products, which helps blunt the effects of hunger. If people on raw diets ate raw meat I doubt they would experience other than normal hunger. I don't believe lions or tigers spend the majority of their day chewing and eating.......

 
At 6:21 AM, Anonymous Seismic said...

...no lions and tigers spend a lot of time hunting (ie: food preparation as in slicing and dicing).

 
At 7:20 AM, Anonymous Wes said...

Wrangham believes that it is important to recognize the universality of the evening hot meal. For 2 million years, humans have gathered around the fire each night. Why, we may not fully understand, but the fact remains that "humans are adapted to the hearth," Wrangham said, and apparently it's this cooking and gathering that makes us human.

I would venture to say that at least half or more of the homes in this country have fireplaces. And that applies even in the southeast Texas semi-tropical climate where I live. This seems to prove Wrangham's statement.

There doesn't seem to be any discussion about the intellectual benefits of cooking. If a society spends less time gathering/hunting/whatever, there's more time to develope brain power.

 
At 7:25 AM, Anonymous B. Durbin said...

charlie: Beer IS a major component of civilization; it provides a means of long-term, high-calorie storage of grain without some of those nasty molds, funguses, and ergots that cause insanity or death, but it's not especially portable in bulk, so you need people to protect the beer, which leads to structure (atop the existent farming structure), which leads to politics...

which leads to a need for a cold brew...

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger David said...

Agriculture prompted the move from hunter-gatherer societies to organised city states and the rise of civilisation. Along with this move came a precipitous decline in average calorific intake. What could have prompted such an apparently retrograde step? Surely not foresight. Instead, it's been posited that it was the demand for grain to be used in brewing that was the cause. If so, then beer truly is the fons et origo of civilisation. But then, you knew that already, right?

 

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