The Impact of Cooking on Human Evolution

Dr. Richard Wrangham, a Harvard scientist, has been able to demonstrate through his studies that cooking your food helps you digest it better. How? It actually facilitates the job for your digestive system, especially your intestines but even the rest of your body. Plus, when food is cooked, it increases the amount of available nutrients and it makes the essential nutrients easier to absorb. This makes you spend less energy on digestion and consequently helps you increase your calorie intake. And since modern Man is becoming increasingly lazy, cooked food is also easier to chew and requires less efforts: so again, less energy spent and more calories consumed. Conclusion: we can eat more, while spending a lot less energy and absorbing way more nutrients. This is very important for our brain, always greedy for energy and calories, and its development and functioning. Did you know that spending less time chewing also helped our ancestors have more free time in order to progress in different ways and to develop new abilities? The whole concept of evolution is actually linked with the fact that Man could optimize these new skills. It meant that we were no longer constrained by the process of the natural selection that favoured genes like giant teeth or a massive jaw (and thank god for it!). Why don’t you try and chew raw meat for a second? You will very promptly realise that it is not an easy task! Our small Homo sapiens teeth are definitely not up for that challenge.

Does this mean that cooking, and thus fire, remain the unique trigger of the evolution that turned our ancestors in what we have become today? I’m sure we can all agree that cooking has to be linked to the discovery of fire. However, the first clues that highlighted this discovery are from 500 000 years ago while the human species had started evolving long before that! How do you explain it? Well, according to Dr Wrangham’s collaborators, Dr Katherine Zink and Dr Daniel Lieberman, it is not just the process of cooking raw food that played a role in evolution, but also the whole concept of “cuisine” and the food transformation it generates. Like, for instance, the actions of slicing, grinding and even cutting food with sharp tools like sharp stones or flints.

Following many experiences in their labs, scientists have shown us that consuming your vegetables raw would require 3 times more effort for your jaw. And don’t you think that cutting these raw vegetables will not help you with that. However, pounding them would reduce chewing efforts on your jaw by 9%. And what about meat? Luckily, pounding it and especially slicing it would also reduce the efforts by 12%, in comparison to eating it raw (my jaw aches at the thought of it).  We can say that it is not only fire but food transformation as well that allowed Man to free himself from chewing. Which was indeed a big step into evolution. I know that this may sound a little vain but believe me, it is not. Especially when you think about the time some animals, like monkeys for example, spend chewing their food so they can be able to swallow it. Could you imagine your family lunch lasting more than 3 hours? Also think of the noise pollution it will generate through mastication sounds! So basically, cooking is pretty much the center of the human evolution. Let us not forget the social value it represents in our society, and from now on, let us also all remember it for its role in the birth of modern Man.