First barbecues

By Shubra Bhadra
Published: Sunday 10 January 2010

imageBook>> Catching Fire • by Richard Wrangham • Basic Books • Indian Price Rs 450

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Darwin theorized intelligence and adaptability make us human. But primatologist Richard Warngham thinks our human nature has a lot to do with the invention of the barbecue—some 1.9 million years ago. In Catching Fire he shows humans evolved not because of hunting or tools—as most other academics think—but because of cooking.

Wrangham takes us to the times when our ancestors made the great evolutionary leap from ape-like Australopithecus to tool-wielding Homo erectus.

At this time, our gut, mouth, teeth and jaws all shrank to their current size—pathetically weak, by primate standards—while our brains swelled. But at this time we learnt to cook. Cooked food is easier to process and more nutritionally dense than raw food, so adopting a cooked diet gave humans a biological advantage.

The ‘cooking hypothesis’ not only explains the physical changes that humans underwent but also the social ones: Cooking created a sexual division of labour that informed our ideas of gender, love, family and marriage. “Humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same way as cows adapted to eating grass, or fleas to sucking blood. We humans are cooking apes, the creature of the flames,” Wrangham concludes.

imageProponents of raw food might not find this hypothesis palatable. Wrangham describes the tribulations of people throughout history who have temporarily survived on uncooked foods. Even today, “raw-foodists” are chronically undernourished. The most extensive research is a study on 513 people in Germany who ate between 70 and 100 per cent raw diets. Wrangham writes, “The scientists’ conclusion was unambiguous: The energy shortage is biologically significant. Among women eating totally raw diets, about 50 percent entirely ceased to menstruate.”

Shubra Bhadra is an anthropologist who likes to call herself a gastronome

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