The world’s oldest profession isn’t what the idiom says it is.
The world’s oldest profession is being a cook, says a new Harvard University study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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Cooking skills first developed at least two million years ago among Homo erectus, an extinct cousin who wasn’t far from us, Homo sapiens, in the human evolutionary tree, reports the study. Cooking, it contends, is the mother of all evolutionary advantages and set humans on a path of divergence from and dominion over other apes, proto-humans and, eventually, other species.
Eating cooked food, or processing food in other ways, such as grinding, pounding, blending, did two things for our hominid ancestors, who until then spent hours chewing food. First, it gave them time to think, reason, socialize, discover and invent. Second, it gave them energy in concentrated, more nutritious form, in a way raw food could not.
The extra time and energy encouraged bonding of male and female, creation of the household, the sexual division of labour, and growth of the human brain.
With this big brain, humans out-thought other species. Teeth and jaws shrunk. Our canines and molars are a shadow of what they once were and what our modern cousins, the great apes, possess. The rates at which teeth-size dropped offer clues to the rise of cooking.
Earlier studies found that changes in the molar size in Homo erectus, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have been more rapid than other evolutionary changes to the human body. The Harvard team studied the remains of 14 human ape-like ancestors and confirmed that Homo erectus and Neanderthals spent as much time cooking as we do in the 21st century—you might say that humanity was launched by an ape that learnt to cook. Chris Organ and Zarin Manchanda, two of the study’s authors, observed that Homo erectus had smaller teeth than other branches of the human family. This means processing food was a behaviour that had already evolved by then, 1.9 million years ago.
The era of cooking had a downside: It led to the primacy of the male. The time freed up from chewing gave males time to hunt, roam and do the things that men do. For females, the time was spent on gathering or preparing food. Further evidence that cooking predates Homo erectus comes from the fact that males were 50% larger than females by then.
The leader of the study, Richard Wrangham, a primatologist who first argued that cooking was not about better-tasting food as much as providing humans with evolutionary advantages (read his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human), believes the human-as-chef development sparked great social change, starting at home. That led to further divergence from the great apes.
The researchers found that human beings set aside, on average, 4.7% of their daily activities for eating; if we put in the effort other primates do, it would occupy 48% of our activity time. “It is not just that we feed differently from other primate species, but that changes in the time we spend feeding have been important to our evolution,” Organ told the Harvard Gazette.
Although humans have since diverged enormously from the great apes, research over the past 20-30 years indicates we are more ape-like in our social behaviour than you could attribute to chance. Something has carried through, reasons Wrangham, who studies chimpanzees in Uganda—as does Manchanda—and previously studied chimpanzees at Gombe (Tanzania), a site made famous by Jane Goodall, the primatologist who lived there among chimps for 45 years.
“To take an example, there are only two mammals that we know of in the world in which males live in groups of their male relatives and occasionally make attacks on individuals in neighbouring groups so brutally that they kill them. Those two mammals are humans and chimpanzees,” Wrangham said during a 2008 interview. “This is very odd and it needs explanation.”
The study does not explore it, but this explanation emerges from the advent of cooking and—controversially—segues into the behaviour of the modern-day male. In the past, Wrangham has used evolutionary history to even explain why Al Qaeda has so much appeal in Arab and other Muslim societies. He said a society that practises polygyny—one man with many wives—eventually frustrates lower-class men in the modern world because women tend to marry upwards into higher social strata and become unavailable. Simultaneously, Westernization, he argued, portrays women as being freely available and undermines reproductive strategies of men who are already desperate.
Wrangham’s point is that, for all their awareness of self, humans continue to follow biological rules. In other words, many of us may not be able to escape our genetic destiny. He believes life might become easier if we understood these rules. Obviously, this is a deeply contested proposition.
Recognizing the deep contradictions of humanity ties us to our distant past and, whether we like it or not, lights our future—a grand theory of everything, starting from the kitchen.
Samar Halarnkar is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at email@example.com