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Food for Thought: Was Cooking a Pivotal Step in Human Evolution?

Fireplace, Wood, Fire, Boil Water, Cook, Flame, HeatThe shift to a cooked-food diet was a decisive point in human history. The main topic of debate is when, exactly, this change occurred. All known human societies eat cooked foods, and biologists generally agree cooking could have had major effects on how the human body evolved. For example, cooked foods tend to be softer than raw ones, so humans can eat them with smaller teeth and weaker jaws. Cooking also increases the energy they can get from the food they eat. Starchy potatoes and other tubers, eaten by people across the world, are barely digestible when raw. Moreover, when humans try to eat more like chimpanzees and other primates, we cannot extract enough calories to live healthily. Such evidence suggests modern humans are biologically dependent on cooking. But at what point in our evolutionary history was this strange new practice adopted? Some researchers think cooking is a relatively recent innovation—at most 500,000 years old. Cooking requires control of fire, and there is not much archaeological evidence for hearths and purposefully built fires before this time.

Like all ideas about human evolution, the cooking hypothesis can only be tested indirectly—without a time machine we cannot know exactly what happened in our evolutionary history. But there are several converging pieces of evidence that support Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis.

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