Evolution and cooking: Was it key to human development?

The shift to a cooked-food diet was a decisive point in human history. The main topic of debate is when, exactly, this change occurred.

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.

Fossils show the teeth and digestive tract of Homo erectus decreased in size around the same time brain size increased. This evidence likely means our ancestors started eating softer, higher-quality foods (although not necessarily cooked). New archaeological research has also continued to push back the earliest known date for the control of fire. For example, traces of purposeful fire at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa have been dated at more than a million years old. Recent studies further suggest humans have genetic adaptions for eating cooked foods—some of which are old, at least predating our split from Neandertals.

Did the adoption of cooking—generally a communal process in humans—require changes in our social behavior, given that other apes rarely share food? Are there other ways to grow a big brain? Answering these questions will continue to shed new light on human health, human psychology and the origins of our species.

Editor's note: Alexandra Rosati is a professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Michigan

 Read full, original post: Food for Thought: Was Cooking a Pivotal Step in Human Evolution?

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