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Homo erectus, or Homo cordon-bleuensis?

Fri, 26th Aug 2011

Chris Smith

Whilst haute cuisine would appear to be a modern human trait, new Reconstruction of a Homo erectusresearch suggests that the art of cooking could well go back almost 2 million years.

A paper in PNAS this week by Harvard scientist Chris Organ and his colleagues examines the relationship between molar tooth size and time spent eating amongst humans and other extant primates.

Humans spend only about a tenth of the time eating that they should compared with other similarly-proportioned primates. We also have far smaller molar teeth than we should do.

The reason, say the scientists, is that we eat a significantly superior diet of cooked food compared with our close ape cousins. This means that food needs less chewing, it takes less time to eat and we can extract far more calories from each meal. Consequently, despite maintaining a large body, we can afford to eat relatively infrequently.

So what about our ancestors? Intriguingly, delving back about 2 million years into the hominid fossil record to the time of Homo erectus, we see similarly shrunken molar teeth like our own beginning to appear and being carried into Neanderthals too. These changes are too dramatic to be accounted by merely by an altering body shape so must have a functional significance.

Organ and his colleagues think it's down to food preparation and in particular, cooking, which unleashed the caloric potential and cut the disease risk of many more foods, helping make humans such a success.

According to study co-author Zarin Machanda, "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 can give you an evolutionary advantage. We think that's why every modern human culture cooks its food."


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