Kurt G. Harris MD

The PāNu approach to nutrition is grounded on clinical medicine and basic sciences disciplined by knowledge of evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology. The best evidence from multiple disciplines supports eating an animal-based diet high in fat, low in cereal grains and relatively low in carbohydrate.

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Wednesday
Jun172009

PaNu - Raw or Cooked?

For an excellent discussion of the role of cooking in human evolution, including a fairly convincing argument that cooking (not just control of fire) began with the transition from H. Habilis to H. Erectus, see the book Catching Fire by Harvard paleoanthropologist Richard Wrangham.

All food sources I discuss assume that cooking is pre-agricultural behavior and that we evolved to eat most of our food cooked. The only paleolithic diet that is substantially raw food would be for chimpanzees.

http://www.amazon.com/Catching-Fire-...5035008&sr=8-1

Wrangham's book has a good discussion of how cooking allowed the human gut to shrink, and thereby freed up metabolic energy that could be devoted to brain growth. Increased meat-eating enabled by more sophisticated and efficient hunting of large mammals and particularly, increased animal fat eating beginning about 4-800,000 years ago likely enabled further increases in brain size (brain growth is highly fat-dependent). 

Reader Comments (3)

A short but interesting introduction to Richard Wrangham's ideas on paleo cooking can be found in an article at The Economist. Note the audio interview accessible from the sidebar, too.

Peter

August 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Peter

Already read it - I am a subscriber

August 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKurt G. Harris MD

This is just to say: most likely it was the other way around; if anything, meat eating (and by meat, I mean anything from a carcass that can be eaten) preceded cooking by far. Most anthropologists, in fact, would agree that meat eating was the primary enabler of the rapid increase in brain size, and cooking would have played a role maybe in a later increase in brain size. Maybe.

Ardipithecus ramidus (aka Ardi) is now thought to have been omnivorous, which means that humans and our ancestors were (probably) eating some meat as far back as 4.4 million years. Solid evidence for cooking goes back maybe 800k years, and that's being quite generous. The brain experienced a rapid expanse in size between Australopithecus (the genus after Ardi) and Homo, and it's perfectly possible that a greater amount of scavenging was going on in this period, possibly even hunting, compared to Ardi. Anyway, we know pretty definitively that the Australopithecines were eating grass-grazing animals of the savannah thanks to bone isotope testing.

Richard Wrangham, in other words, must be trying to be rebellious and iconoclastic by pulling nonexistant evidence out of his posterior to try to claim that it was something other than meat that allowed the brain to grow and the GI tract to shrink; I don't see how cooking could increase available calories as significantly as animal fat could, in any case, nevermind the fact that you still need raw materials - protein, cholesterol, and fats, all found in abundance in meat - to build a bigger brain.

*ramble over*


KGH:

I haven't done a full review of his book. I did not find his knowledge of nutrition to be that impressive. Frankly, his claims about plants versus animal sources were hardly the point of the book, so when another blogger recently quoted wrangham as supporting the preponderance of plants in the ancestral diet, I was somewhat amused, as I think Wrangham is just parroting the other "man was not so much a hunter" revisionists.

I do think, in making his case that cooking could be as old as millions of years, that he at least strengthens the case that we have significant evolutionary experience with it. Half a million years is easily enough to refute claims that we are not adapted to the effects of cooking.

I did enjoy the book and I recommend it. The scientifically literate will see it more as a provocative essay than a definitve scientific monograph, and to be fair to Wrangham he admits he makes much of his case based on informed speculation.

Like you, I would argue that eating of animal fat is the central dietary evolutionary adaptation that allowed us to reduce our guts and grow our brains. I think cooking was secondary but contributory whenever it occurred.

November 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterIcarus
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