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
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."