Why Is the Way Humans Eat So Special? Part I

When the rusty grey Jeep shuddered to a stop, we were straddling the top of deeply rutted dirt path. At last at the top of the incline, hours after we'd started our drive, my two friends and I stood awestruck overlooking Turrialba in Costa Rica. The house where we would stay was isolated on the top of a hill, providing views of coffee farms and swathes of high grass. The first taste of the terrain was of fresh sugarcane. Our night guard, an old man with an even older dog and a machete, cut a short stalk for each of us to gnaw on. It was the most direct access I had ever had to sugar, and it couldn't have been sweeter. It was a welcoming gesture, a kindness that taught us about his culture and offered a greater appreciation for how far sugarcane must travel, both geographically and chemically, before it is bagged on shelves as granulated, powdered, or unrefined. It takes a great deal of energy and great number of people to make that happen—as it takes for almost everything we eat today.

Before we sit down and explore the psychological latticework of eating together, we have to gather the ingredients and prepare the meal. For our earliest ancestors, this was more complicated than today's dining. Now lunch can be as simple as ordering a meal online and having it delivered to your office. In the years before convenience stores and even iceboxes, the insurmountable amount of work required to scavenge, hunt, gather, and cook all by oneself rendered cooking alone nutritionally inefficient. There wasn’t enough time, energy, or security to rationalize it.

Even today, if you think about the times when a roommate has been out of town or a significant other has been away on business, you may notice a difference in the quality of your home-cooked meals. If you’re cooking for only yourself, somehow the standards are likely to slide and take-out or frozen dinners are more likely to fill your gustatory requirements. With early humans, it was more probable that different members of a group performed different functions as needed to ensure the sustenance of the clan or tribe: some gathered roots and vegetables, some hunted, some tended the spoils around the fire.  

But the process that led to individuals harmoniously cooking and eating together was not a simple, linear path. In fact, it’s uncommon in other species to place food in the middle of a group and expect equality or even civility to be maintained until the food has been eaten, particularly when the group is not blood related. We are a singular species in that we have taken what were once hostile social cues, such as direct eye contact and baring one’s teeth—inevitable when seated for a meal—and turned them into indicators of agreeability and friendliness.

To determine how these distinguishing traits arose in humans, ­scientists have delved even further into our history, monitoring and analyzing the eating habits of primates in search of our own culinary roots. It’s in other omnivores, like the chimpanzees, that the greatest insights have been gained. Observations of these and other hunters consistently point to the prevalence of collaborative food acquisition. Working together to collect enough food is an ancient trait; but the way in which we share is special to humans. If we take these observations and cast them across the ancient past, we can see the beginnings of the story of food sharing unfold.