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The New York Times this week ran a fascinating little Q&A with Richard Wrangham, a primatologist and anthropologist, who argues that neither tools nor meat-eating led to the ascend of man. Wrangham believes that it was our ancestors’ ability to manipulate fire and use it to transform chewy raw ingredients into something palatable

Cooking, in other words.

Here’s the meat of the interview:

Q. In your new book, you suggest that cooking was what facilitated our evolution from ape to human. Until now scientists have theorized that tool making and meat eating set the conditions for the ascent of man. Why do you argue that cooking was the main factor?

A. All that you mention were drivers of the evolution of our species. However, our large brain and the shape of our bodies are the product of a rich diet that was only available to us after we began cooking our foods. It was cooking that provided our bodies with more energy than we’d previously obtained as foraging animals eating raw food.

I have followed wild chimpanzees and studied what, and how, they eat. Modern chimps are likely to take the same kinds of foods as our early ancestors. In the wild, they’ll be lucky to find a fruit as delicious as a raspberry. More often they locate a patch of fruits as dry and strong-tasting as rose hips, which they’ll masticate for a full hour. Chimps spend most of their day finding and chewing extremely fibrous foods. Their diet is very unsatisfying to humans. But once our ancestors began eating cooked foods – approximately 1.8 million years ago – their diet became softer, safer and far more nutritious.

And that’s what fueled the development of the upright body and large brain that we associate with modern humans. Earlier ancestors had a relatively big gut and apelike proportions. Homo erectus, our more immediate ancestor, has long legs and a lean, striding body. In fact, he could walk into a Fifth Avenue shop today and buy a suit right off a peg.

Our ancestors were able to evolve because cooked foods were richer, healthier and required less eating time.

Photo by Vandelizer