I just finished reading Catching Fore: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. It makes an interesting case that food — and the cooking of food — helped drive the evolution of human beings.
Following a detailed energy analysis comparing raw and cooked food, Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, posits that homo erectus evolved out of autralopithecines around 1.8 million years ago primarily as a result of the introduction of cooking. The softness of processed food drove the visible changes between the species in jaw and tooth structure and gut size, while the increase of energy imparted to the food by cooking helped accelerate the massive growth in cranial capacity in erectus.
He also suggests that the evolution of homo erectus to homo heielbergensis (a precursor to homo sapiens) around 700,000 years ago is contemporaneous with evidence showing a more complete control of fire. Moreover, he argues that the societal and cultural changes introduced through the security of fire and the sharing of cooked food are implicated in the emergence of the big-brained homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. These are big claims which he backs up with considerable evidence from both the paleo-archaeologcal record and studies of modern hunter-gatherers.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly and I learned a great deal. However, Catching Fire was published in 2009. In the decade since, there have been enormous strides taken in our knowledge of the human family tree. In that time we have discovered the Denisovans, re-evaluated the Neanderthals, and added homo naledi and homo floriensis to the list of our forebears, along with much else. I’ll need to see how Wrangham’s arguments stack up against the new discoveries.
Whatever the result of that comparison, Catching Fire is well worth the read for anyone interested in the origins of humanity and food.