Science News

Homo erectus - The world's first cook?

Thu, 25th Aug 2011

Emma Stoye

New research suggests that early hominids of the species Homo erectus, which lived between 1.8 and 1.5 million years ago, may have cooked and processed their food in the same way that we do.

Humans have much smaller molar teeth than other primates of comparable body size, and also spend much less time eating. Scientists at Harvard University calculated that, based on their body mass and calorie requirements, if humans behaved like all other primates we would expect them to spend 48% of their time feeding. In reality for the average human this is just under 5%.

Primatologist Zarin Machanda and her colleagues suggest these differences between humans and other primates exist because humans cook and process their food before eating it. 

“When you cook food it becomes softer, you can chew it more easily, and you can actually get more calories out of it than if you eat it raw,” said Dr Machanda, “Cooking is an important human behaviour....what we did in this paper is try to look at when, and how quickly, this trait evolved.”

The team conducted a comparative analysis of body mass, mHomo erectus familyolar size, skull and jaw characteristics along with genetic data for modern humans, primates and several extinct human ancestor species.

In addition to Homo sapiens, two other hominid species were found to have small molars that could not be explained solely by the patterns of body mass or jaw evolution alone: Homo neanderthalis and the more ancient Homo erectus. This indicates that early hominids underwent a dramatic dietary shift which the researchers propose could have been driven by the ability to cook.

Cooking may have helped our ancestors survive and enabled the hominid lineage to persist throughout evolutionary history.  “Energy is a currency that animals work with, so the more calories you have the more energy you have and if you can increase energy that could give you an evolutionary advantage,” said Dr Machanda. “We think that’s why every modern human culture cooks its food.”

The research was published this week in the journal PNAS

Click to hear the full interview with Dr. Zarin Machanda


Subscribe Free

Related Content


Make a comment

I remember a theory about humans heating meat so to simulate the temperature of a fresh kill. I bet someone left the meat beyond that temp & figured out the meat tenderized with proper cooking time? Also, bacteria contaminates from the exterior...
CZARCAR, Thu, 25th Aug 2011

"When did cooking first evolve?"
Just before lunch. Bored chemist, Thu, 25th Aug 2011

sleeping in late? CZARCAR, Thu, 25th Aug 2011

I would think that control over fire, and cooking would have evolved more or less simultaneously, and may have been an adaptation for a cold environment.  There seem to be wildly different estimates of when it occurred, from 500,000 years ago to 2 million years ago.  But, generally estimated sometime during the period of Homo Erectus.

Perhaps it was an adaptation for energy, but I don't generally think of cooking my steak to get fatter.  Processing and cooking grains, however, might make them more palatable.  Natural Selection might have aided the cooks...  but that still doesn't explain why they started.

Perhaps a little kid was a "fire bug", and playing with his food near the fire, and decided to roast some of it above the fire, and liked the taste.

Perhaps early humans were experimenting with freezing food during the winter, and decided that not frozen food was more palatable to eat. 

Perhaps some humans were scavenging after a forest fire, and learned to like the new flavors.

Perhaps cooking food helped kill bacteria and pests.

As early hominids learned to control fire, cooking would have been inevitable.  CliffordK, Fri, 26th Aug 2011

Cooking With Fire by Harvard professor was a good read.  He makes excellent point that human gut is too short to process uncooked grain.  Raw meat needs cooking for the proteins to be extracted.  As to how it all began, he proposes maybe eating meat overran by fire or volcanic action.  As good as any.  If you go there, you will have to see us as totally dumb; because lack of protein is what people die from, the brain stultifies.  You can't think.  Back then you can't think, you're prey. 
I like the idea that controlled fire was first used to keep animals at bay at night.  But I have to admit that eating something already cooked by lava is appealing, saves the hunt.  But that is accidental, so it seems to me that the keeping animals away at night with fire led to eating things cooked --  the fire was always kept so food being exposed to heat was inevitable.  katesisco, Fri, 26th Aug 2011

Thanks, Katesisco; I might have to look up that book and give it a read...

Chris chris, Sun, 28th Aug 2011

See the whole discussion | Make a comment

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society