By Karen Klinger
To the age-old question “Where did humans come from?,” Harvard University anthropologist Richard Wrangham has a pithy answer: “I think they came out of the kitchen.”
Actually, a metaphorical kitchen that was a fire our ancestors dropped some meat into about 1.8 million years ago, then snatched the food back, put it into their mouths and liked the taste.
From that point on, Wrangham believes, evolution occurred rapidly, resulting in physiological changes to the forebears of modern humans that resulted in our having smaller molars and guts and larger cranial capacities, among differences, than our primate cousins.
Simply put, “Humans are biologically adapted to eating cooked foods,” he told a capacity crowd recently at the first of a series of public programs the Harvard Museum of Natural History is sponsoring called “Food for Thought.”
A British-born primatologist who once studied under Jane Goodall, Wrangham holds a tenured faculty post in biological anthropology and is author of a celebrated book published last year titled “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.”
In it, he argues that scientists who think cooking is a relatively recent activity created by humans who had already traveled a long way down the evolutionary path have things the wrong way around.
He believes it was cooking that came first, and led to the emergence of Homo erectus, the first hominid thought not only to look reasonably like modern Homo sapiens, but also to live in hunter-gatherer groups, use relatively complex tools and care for group members who were infirm.
Wrangham is also the co-director of a long-term study of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in Uganda, which has given him ample opportunity to compare the feeding habits of man’s closest relatives with that of humans. “If you want to rely on eating what chimpanzees eat all day, you would get extremely hungry,” he said.
While cooking food allows us to consume needed calories easily (maybe too easily), if we had to consume nothing but the raw food that chimps eat, Wrangham said we would have to “spend five to six hours a day just chewing.”
Although the diets of various human societies differ, he noted that there are “no known cases of people surviving long-term on raw food in the wild.”
The stipulation “in the wild” is significant, because while there are people (“raw foodists,” he calls them) who eschew cooking, they are mostly city dwellers who can live without having to expend an undue amount of energy. “These are not people out digging roots all day long,” Wrangham said.
In a further explanation of how cooking made us who we are, he believes it also led to human pair-bonding and possibly, for good or ill, the establishment of traditional gender roles. In this way, women became not only gatherers, but gatherer-cooks.
“Cooking creates the possibility of haves and have-nots, with women becoming vulnerable to having their food stolen by hungry men,” he said. But if she has a mate, she has someone who says, in effect, “You feed me and I will guarantee that no one else will ask you for food.”
Under this scenario, men who know there will be a hot meal waiting for them at the end of the day are also able to spend longer hours out on the hunt, increasing the chance that they will bring home more meat for everyone in the family.
More than anything else, Wrangham thinks this explains why it is that around the world, in every culture, “the domestic meals are almost always prepared by the wife.”
But how then to explain the scene at a typical barbecue, where almost without exception, it is the man who does the grilling?
During a discussion following Wrangham’s talk, one of his graduate students, Rachel Carmody, offered a guess: “I think it’s because the barbecue is like a ritual, with everyone gathered around. By doing the grilling, the men get to take center stage.”
As any woman could attest, it probably doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.
The next program in the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s “Food for Thought” series (free and open to the public) will be February 11 at 6 p.m. in the Geological Lecture Hall at 24 Oxford Street. Bruce Smith, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, will talk about “Where Our Food Comes From: The Origins of Agriculture.”
For a complete list of upcoming programs, go to: http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu/lectures_and_special_events/index.php