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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Catching Fire: How cooking shaped mankind

by Jamie Lutton

The modern  world is haunted with the mystery of our origin. Where did human beings come from?  This has been the great question humanity asks itself, where we came from, long ago, and this question is what drive all origin stories, and most religions.
We are surrounded by animals of all kinds, but humans are not quite animals. We differ because we have culture. This means we talk, make tools, and form complex societies, no matter where in the  world you go.. 
Scientists since before Darwin have examined first human, then animal behavior; and tried to figure out where we are different; what things humans do that animals do not do. 
The first choice was toolmaking...until we found out that chimpanzees, and some birds like Australian crows and even some otters make and use simple tools. Then it was speech...but we can and do teach some primates to 'talk', using sign language (and seen them teach their children the same). Many animals form groups for self protection, even those who are not mammals, and it is a learned behavior at least in part..  Fire use was seen as an important tool, but only for defense, etc. 
Humans have  been telling each other about the great day long ago that fire came to people,  in all lands and languages.  This is the story behind the Prometheus  myth of the Ancient Greeks, and the Coyote and Raven origin myths of the local Native Americans.
The answer was right in front of us all along, in what is,  traditionally been women's work, so it was overlooked  by men .   .The author of Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham, has a new idea about why humanity differs from the other animals.   It is the act of using, and controlling fire to cook food that makes us human. 
The author makes a good case for this hypothesis, by thoroughly examining modern  human anatomy, discussing  in detail  in  the ways we differ  from our closest relatives, the great apes.  He walks us through our evolution from small, short hominids with brains not much bigger than ape's, who both lived in the trees and on the ground,  like Homo Habilis,  to modern human beings in our modern culture because we cook the food we eat. . 
All the possible changes eating cooked food made on human anatomy is revealed by this author . His radical assertion, that our flat face with a small mouth and weak teeth, our guts, our gait, our hairlessness, our big brains, all the ways we differ from apes, all of the differences that makes us human, came from  us mastering fire, and cooking our food. 
Studies by anthropologists, observing what chimpanzees and gorillas eat in the wild, show that humans cannot survive long on these raw plants and fruits. The human digestive system cannot handle them, and some ape foods are poisonous and indigestible to us. These foods also cannot generate enough calories for our brains to flourish and thrive. Cooking makes the food easier to digest, and extracts more calories than raw foods. Human beings, then, evolved to have a shorter gut - our intestine, and smaller, weaker teeth, a much smaller mouth, and a flat face as a result. And a big brain.
The author interviewed raw food advocates, and cited studies of them, looking at  just how healthy they really are,  eating food that is not cooked. He cites studies that humans lose weight to the point of not being able to reproduce on raw food alone. Also, that there is not enough raw food 12 months of the year in the wild for humans to survive in modern ecosystems. We have changed too much from our ancestors.
The all important difference we have with animals - our huge brain - he suggests evolved because it was fed by cooked food, and cannot thrive without it.. And it is our huge brain alone that is the big difference between apes and humans.
Catching Fire's author examines what we know about habilines,  or Homo Habilis (and Australopithecus, their direct ancestors).  who lived and thrived 1.9  million years ago. They walked upright, but had short arms; their shoulder bones found shows that they could still swing up into the trees . The big change is not walking upright, but when this human ancestor  had truly shed her life in the trees. This question is in not only feet and legs, but in the shoulders; the size of the gut and the hip bones; the arms could support brachiating in Homo Habilis, or climbing in the trees easily.  This ability was lost, in a few hundred thousand years in a sharp leap in evolution when Homo Erectus evolved.
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The great question  is how hominids could survive on the ground without protection that fire gives humans from animals. No ape, except full grown male gorillas, sleep on the ground. There were too many predators around.  Baboons get away with it, because they live in very large groups.The author suggests that was the 'great leap' to the ground when humanity left the trees forever, and walked upright, and began to be able to run, losing their body hair as they had fire to keep them warm. There is no plausible reason for humans to become hairless, unless we had fire to keep us warm. This perhaps  why human babies are fat, while Chimpanzee babies are not; this is to retain body heat the first critical few years.    
Humans are great runners, up there with wolves and other predators to be able to trot, run for hours, something an ape cannot do.  Homo Erectus, which evolved from Homo Habilis, was then very like us from the neck down, even to being as  tall as we are. And their brains make a great leap, and became  40% bigger than the Habilines, in a few short hundreds of thousands of years.
This author makes the radical proposition that homo habilis were the first to  use fire, even if she did not make it. He points out that there is a place in Greece, a gas leak from underground that has been burning steadily for thousands of years, which was described by Homer in the Iliad, 3000 years ago.     
Africa could have had such a place. Then, there are lightning strikes in nature that start small fires that burn for weeks. Our ancestors, coming across this, might grab a burning stick...to tease her friends by waving it about. Then finding out that a burning stick was effective at keeping big predators  at bay. And wherever that group of hominds went, they found that burnt food, such as seeds and dead animals, was easier to eat and digest.  And they learned, over time, to made use of this consistently. In a few hundreds of thousands of years, they changed physically as a result. 
Already, apes pound on meat with rocks to make it easier to eat. the next step, burning or cooking tough roots and meat seems a plausible evolution in behavior. 
In many origin myths around the world, a supernatural  figure arises that brings fire to hungry, unhappy humanity. To Promethius stealing fire from the Greek gods, to Raven in local Native American myths (and in some stories, Coyote) stealing fire to bring to starving, unhappy ancestors,  humans tell stories  of the terrible time before they had fire; and cooked food. 
I recommend Catching Fire to people not only interested in human origins, but chefs and others who like to cook, people interested in public health,  raw food advocates, Michael Pollan fans, and anyone who likes Stephen Jay Gould's science essays. Richard Wrangham is a professor of biological Anthropology at Harvard, and like Gould was, and so his book is a great successor to Gould's books. I only wish that Professor Gould had been around to read and review it.  I have read maybe 30 or 40 books about hominid evolution; and I follow all the news stories about the latest finds.   
After reading Catching Fire, I would recommend The Johanson's two books, Lucy and Lucy's Children,  for a good discussion of what early hominids looked like, and how they lived, and how their fossils were first discovered in the 1970's.I . also recommend  The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, by Paul Shepard,  for a psychological understanding of how hunters and gatherers think.  It has gone out of print, but is widely available. The editon with the illustrations by Fons Van Woerkom is beautiful.
I  recommend Catching Fire to people not only interested in human origins, but chefs and others who like to cook, people interested in public health, and anyone who likes Stephen Jay Gould's science essays. Richard Wrangham is a professior of biological Anthropology at Harvard, as Gould was 30 years ago, and so his book is a great successor to Gould's writings on evolution. I only wish that Professor Gould had been around to read and review it.
I have read maybe 30 or 20 books about homind evolution; and all the news stories about the latest finds. The other books are excellent for what they are; they talk about the relationship between Austrolpithicenes and apes and true humans. They frequently have not only photos of what bones paleontologists have found so far, but include reconstructions of what the hominids looked like.There is a lot of fun reading the theories about which fossils are in the direct human linage, as this changes from time to time sharply. 
But Catching Fire can be read on its own, and is in fact a good place to start. As a feminist, I recommend it as a 'must read' as another example of the obvious hypothesis being overlooked, since cooking is not traditionally work men do.      
I only wish the author had included drawings of human, ape and hominid skeletons, and the human digestive tract, as this would enliven the text. The reader will have to go elsewhere for that. 
Look in any bookstore in the 'evolution' section, and there are many fine books with beautiful illustrations, that have the latest discoveries the paleontologists have found in Africa and elsewhere. I strongly recommend these books to those who want to see the face of the past. 

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