Monday, March 15, 2010

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human

Good easy reading. I picked it up after seeing it on The Economist's Best Reads of 2009. Let me forewarn you if you’re religious, this book won’t be for you as the author delves deeply into anthropology, evolution and science.

I’ve recently become interested in the history of food and how it changed slowly with humans. If you think in the grand scheme of human history, grains are even relatively new since farming techniques only began about 10,000 years ago. The processed food revolution began very recently, just around 100 years ago, so a lot of marketed drivel isn’t tailored to our bodies for consumption.. (but damn does it taste good). The new era seems to be heading toward GMOs.

I could see why this book would turn a lot of people off because he uses the eating behavior of gorillas, great apes and chimps as analogues throughout the book; however his theory on the use of fire and cooking to shape human physiology is really good reading.

He points out our proportionately smaller mouths, teeth and guts and breaks down how cooking food significantly decreases chewing time (cows chew up to 20 hours a day, chimps 7+) in addition to increasing the digestibility of food. Rather than the common logic that we manipulate fire, he points out that cooking and its benefits to taste, time and digestibility led to bigger brains (which use a lot of energy) and smaller guts. Even today’s animals whose diets consist of raw food prefer cooked food if given a choice simply because it tastes better. A cooked food eating animal will gain more weight than its raw eating counterpart given the same amount of caloric density since cooking increases the uptake of food by the gut. He even goes into details on how cooking shaped gender roles still apparent today in modern hunter-gather cultures as well as our own. The presence of fire to do the cooking, illuminating darkness, defending against predators and keeping ourselves warm is central to his ideas that the presence of fire played a major role in the development of humans.

I have my doubts on some of his claims, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking read.

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