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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Why do we cook food? 
26th-Dec-2006 01:43 am
for eta_ta

Why do we cook? How did cooking begin?

Cooked food tastes better, but that is cultural bias and long culinary tradition. Unseasoned meat roasted over open fire isn't yammy. The nutrition value of most kinds of food, especially fruits and vegetables, is reduced by cooking, but we cook our vegetables nevertheless. Disinfection/ detoxification of food were unimportant at the onset of cooking (spit roasting is too unrealiable for heat treatment; baking and boiling are too recent in origin). Cooking is most useful for increasing digestibility of starchy plants (tubers) and preservation of meats. Is that what cooking was for? How did humans begin to cook and what effect cooking had on the society? The answers given in the literature are remarkable in their sketchiness and boldness: cooking caused the increase in the brain size and foraging capacity, reduction in sexual dimorphism, crooked teeth, theft, the origin of property, male-female bonding, feminine beauty, nuclear family, etc.

Think what microwaving dinners is doing to us...

...the typical answers would be "to kill germs," "to kill parasites," "to tenderize and improve digestibility," "to improve taste," "cooking is part of what makes humans civilized." One would object that germs are not dangerous in the context of a robust, healthy, and naturally fed body, that cooked food has lost most of its nutritive value, and that cooking is unnatural and unnecessary.http://www.beyondveg.com/tu-j-l/raw-cooked/raw-cooked-3a.shtml#why%20sapiens%20cook

...Grilling is man’s oldest cooking method and its discovery about 750 kya helped our hominid ancestors evolve into the human beings we are today. (Barbeque University site, http://www.bbqu.net/faq.html)

...[Traditional view: cooking began with meats] Primitive humans may first have savoured roast meat by chance, when the flesh of a beast killed in a forest fire was found to be more palatable and easier to chew and digest than the customary raw meat. They probably did not deliberately cook food, though, until long after they had learned to use fire for light and warmth. It has been speculated that Peking man roasted meats, but no clear evidence supports the theory. From whenever it began, however, roasting spitted meats over fires remained virtually the sole culinary technique until the Palaeolithic Period, when the Aurignacian people of southern France apparantly began to steam their food over hot embers by wrapping it in wet leaves. Aside from such crude procedures as toasting wild grains on flat rocks and using shells, skulls, or hollowed stones to heat liquids, probably no further culinary advances were made until the introduction of pottery during the Neolithic Period. http://www.geocities.com/napavalley/6454/history1.html

...[Cooking as recent cultural trend] The earliest suggestive evidence of fire being associated with humans was found at two sites in Kenya dating to 1.5 Mya. In both cases, soil sediments appear to have been exposed to high temperatures. However, it is not necessary to assume that early humans were responsible. The burned soil could have resulted naturally from lightning started wild fires that are common in the grasslands of East Africa. Similar questionable evidence has been found in South Africa dating to about 1 Mya. There is no convincing evidence of human control of fire at this early time. A 0.79 Myr old site in Israel [Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Science 304 (2004) 725)] has more credible evidence, though there does not seem to have been any cooking or repeated fire creation. The earliest convincing evidence of fire use for cooking appears at the 0.3-0.55 Myr old late Homo erectus site at Zhoukoudian in China and the 0.4 Myr old presumed early archaic Homo sapiens site of Terra Amata near Nice. In both cases the evidence is primarily in the form of food refuse bones that were apparently charred during cooking. Unfortunately, there still is not sufficient evidence at either site to say conclusively that there was controlled fire in the sense of being able to create it at will. However, by 100 kya, there is abundant evidence of regular fire use at Neandertal sites. By that time, they evidently were able to create fires when they wished to, and they used them for multiple purposes. http://anthro.palomar.edu/homo2/mod_homo_3.htm

...[Seduction theory] Once humans started cooking, the quantity they ate was much higher than usual because the instinctive "stop" mechanism only works well with original, raw foods we've been exposed to during evolution, but is subverted by cooking. Thus, since their metabolisms became overloaded, raw sweet potatoes tasted less good the following morning, and the only way to get enough satisfaction with food was to continue cooking. In a sense, humans became prisoners of the vicious cycle they had built themselves.

...[Wildfire cooking as the original sin] Typically, predators move in soon after a fire to forage for food among the charred or partially burnt remains. Ruminants later visit to lick at the ashes (for salt). It may also have been at this stage that humans would first have begun to appreciate not just the different and perhaps appealing taste of fired food, but more importantly its effects in preserving meat for later consumption when it would otherwise spoil if not soon eaten--a survival advantage.

...[Bad weather theory] humans did not start using fire consistently until about 0.4-0.5 Mya, perhaps to drive predators away and keep warm. Where the less equable environments of the temperate zones are concerned (and particularly where the harsher climates of higher latitudes or altitudes are concerned), fire probably would have been essential for warmth and to thaw out meat that had become frozen. From there it likely would not be much of a leap to proceed to the next step of beginning to cook food.

...[Out of the tropics theory] it has been claimed that originally humans started cooking because, as they migrated out of the tropical African climate in which the species began, fruits became unavailable in winter, and the only way to be able to eat a sufficient amount of food or meat was to cook it. This argument might make some sense if one could point to at least a few tribes in tropical countries who consumed predominantly raw fruit, but this is simply not the case. Hunter-gatherers, even in tropical environments, eat a fair amount of meat, which is usually cooked, and also cook {starchy plants, such as] tubers. Only traditional Inuit/Eskimos seem to make a point of regularly including some raw animal foods in their diet.

...[Optimal foraging theory] if food is easily collected and edible raw, then it will generally be eaten that way, but some foods, which are inedible in their raw state, would be able to provide a high energy or nutrient yield, in the sense that gathering, processing, cooking them would represent a significant gain of time and effort compared to eating only raw foods. This is true in particular for certain tubers or root vegetables, some of which are partially edible raw but become much more digestible after cooking. It's also worth noting that smoking, drying, or cooking meats can also allow them to be preserved and more fully utilized without waste or spoilage, which is important in a wild environment where a regular supply of meat is not assured.

...[Evolution of teeth in response to cooking] By animal standards, human dentition is extraordinarily disordered, says anthropologist Peter Lucas. It is extraordinary that the normal development of human teeth routinely fails to produce 'ideal' dentition, and no one has yet been able to offer an explanation for this phenomenon. Human teeth are often spatially disarrayed or "maloccluded". Teeth can also be missing - wisdom teeth simply do not have enough space to fit into the jaw, and sometimes do not form at all. In contrast most other mammals have very low frequencies of malocclusion. Lucas's theory is that human dentition began to go haywire soon after our early Homo ancestors learnt to cook food. "The size of particles has reduced more rapidly than the rate at which the [toughness] of food has changed," he says. In response the human jaw may have shrunk beyond the point where it can hold all the molars required to successfully chew tough food. http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7035

...[Tuber theory] tubers--and the ability to cook them--prompted the appearance early in human evolution of large brains, smaller teeth, modern limb proportions, and even male-female bonding. The work challenges the current dogma that meat-eating spurred the evolution of key human traits, and it implies that human ancestors had mastered fire much earlier than is generally believed. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/283/5410/2004

...[Cooking as the origin of theft and love] Whenever cooking happened, it must have had absolutely monstrous effects on us, because cooking enormously increases the quality of the food we eat, and it enormously increases the range of food items that we can eat. Sometime around 0.25-0.3 Mya years ago cooking really got going, because there's archeological evidence of earth ovens. Long before earth ovens came along we must have learned to cook. Cooking would be associated with smaller teeth, or maybe a reduction in the size of the rib cage as the size of the stomach gets smaller, or maybe the jaw getting smaller. And there's only one time in human evolution that all that happens: 1.9 Mya. It's there we must look for evidence that cooking was adopted. Once cooking happens, it changes the way the animal exploits its environment, because instead of eating as it goes, now for the first time it has to accumulate food, put it somewhere, and sit with it until it's cooked. The effect is that all of a sudden there's a stealable food patch. Once you have a stealable food patch, that means that somebody's going to come along and try to steal it. What this means is that you have to think about a producer/scrounger dynamic in which you've got individuals producing and individuals scrounging — and, horribly, females were the producers and males were the scroungers. Once you've got males bigger than females — 50% bigger by 2 Mya — then the effects on the social system would be large. Once you have females ready to make a meal by collecting food and cooking it, then they're vulnerable to having their food taken away by the scroungers — the big males — who find it easier not to go and collect food themselves or cook it, but just take it once it's ready. Therefore the females need protective bonds in order to protect themselves from thieving males, and this is the origin of human male-female relationships.

...[Cooking as the source of feminine beauty] Australopithecines like Lucy had huge teeth and males were much bigger than females. But 1.9 Mya, teeth got smaller, and both sexes increased in size. Females increased in size more than males, and so the size gap between the sexes shrank. Homo erectus had arrived, and cooking of tubers made the difference. With the advent of fire, hominids were able to cook tubers, which softened them, making chewing easier, and increased the amount of available nutrients. Teeth no longer had to be huge and suitable for constant chewing. Further, cooking allowed hominids to expand their diets. Many tubers are poisonous unless cooked, so cooking opened up new food sources. The use of tubers may have helped australopithecines expand their range from rainforest to savanna, where tubers were numerous. On an evolutionary scale, male primates are limited in reproduction by access to females, but females are limited by access to resources. When cooking increased the supply of calories, females were able to grow to a larger size. At the same time, a decrease in the male-female size difference signalled a change in mating systems. When male and female mammals are close in size, pair bonding is the rule. Cooking opens the door for theft, so among cooking hominids, there would have been cause to cooperate in new ways. Females would have been vulnerable to theft by much larger males. This would have resulted in evolutionary pressure for females to form bonds with males, basing their choice on male willingness to cooperate in defending food stores rather than on male size. Laden and his colleagues believe this might have led to an important evolutionary novelty of humans: female sexual attractiveness.

...[A new role for males] The females formed protective relationships with male co-defenders. Males would have varied in their ability or willingness to engage effectively in this relationship, so females would have competed for the best food guards, partly by extending their period of sexual attractiveness. This would have increased the numbers of matings per pregnancy, reducing the intensity of male intrasexual competition.
see also R W Wrangham "The Raw and the Stolen" Current Anthropology, 40 (1999) 567.
and his inerview in "Cooking Ape" Gastronomica 5 (2005) 29

What remains unclear to me is how cooking could have been such a great evolutionary force (increasing the brain size, etc), given that incontrovertible evidence of cooking is very recent (at most 0.25 Mya, probably even 0.1 Mya); its ancient origin 1.9 Mya is presently speculative. The animals (including the apes and our ape like ancestors) get by very well without cooking, and there are other, more natural ways of tenderizing meats (fermentation, marinating) and food storage (e.g., sun drying and freezing). Without controlable fire, it seems very doubtful that cooking could have been much of a force for changing social organization or evolution. It strikes me that answers seeking rational justification for the invention of cooking are probably incorrect.

Perhaps cooking originated as recently as suggested by the evidence and it started as a cultural tradition in an already developed human society: it began as a ritual. The possible role it played could've been (i) the exorcism of evil spirits and (ii) fire worship (transferring the stength of the fire into one's body to make one equal to gods). Prometheus, the creator of mankind and the giver of fire, was charged by Zeus for such an offence. The invention of cooking might not have had anything to do with improving taste, food processing, or digestibility, as suggested by our myths.

Why do we cook?
17th-Jan-2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
there is a sci-fi novel which name escapes me now, where a band of apes/primitive people is discovered, and there is a legal question of whether they are people or apes (and if they are apes then somebody will enslave them blah blah blah). to make a long story short, the decisive argument for them being humans is that they smoke their meat right before eating. this is interpreted as a sign of fire worship = capacity for highly abstract thought = humanity. the fact that they do it before eating signifies that it's not for preservation (not functional).

i'll try to think of the book's name.
18th-Jan-2007 12:08 am (UTC)
You must be reading my thoughts: I was also thinking of that book. It is
Jean Vercors, "Les animaux denatures."
18th-Jan-2007 12:27 am (UTC)
i thought it was french, but i read it in russian
23rd-Sep-2010 11:08 am (UTC)
You're right about vegetable; the vitamin molecules contained in all vegetables are split by the intense heating; the overcooking process make them absolutely inactive as nutrients. On the other hand the undercooked meat could lead to food poisoning due to the bacteria contained by the raw meat.
discount health supplements
19th-Aug-2012 09:34 am (UTC)
simple answear to this dont eat meat
2nd-Mar-2014 09:40 am (UTC)
Very good collection of reference material on why do we cook?
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