Why Cooking Matters, Part I

There's something about being on vacation that exponentially increases your thoughts about food. After my friends and I had reached the pinnacle of Turrialba and unpacked our suitcases into our two-room cabin, we scanned the landscape—lush, verdant hills and sweeping valleys in every direction. No store, restaurant, or room service for miles. This was more remote than most getaways tend to be. We had to come prepared. We stocked up on provisions before making the hour-long trek, not knowing when we'd be back.

When you're in a new environment, you lose the food security of your own pantry, grocery store, or late night delivery. You seek out solutions to the food question, which sometimes becomes vacationers' most pleasant memories—a new restaurant, local fare, a culinary adventure. But in the distant past (and even for many people now), predicting the next meal was near impossible. It took work: scavenging, gathering, hunting, and the effort was shared by a group for efficiency's sake. Returning to half a million years ago, we can see how humans' eating habits began to shift away from their neighboring primates'.

Early hominids shared the African landscape with chimpanzees, and both species would have shared a diet comprised mostly of plants and periodically speckled with the meat of smaller mammals like the colobus monkey. The great peculiarity of early humans and perhaps their greatest evolutionary advantage was what they did with their meat after the hunt: they roasted it.

The firing of root vegetables or even a gazelle may very well have been accidental. Perhaps a Homo erectus bit into a sun-roasted root and liked it. If so, this early ancestor would have needed the curiosity and resourcefulness to experiment. By combining the power of fire with the food they consumed, early humans changed the trajectory of future generations.

There is evidence to suggest that cooking, more than the consumption of meat, encouraged our brains to grow and evolve into cleverer, more comprehensive minds. Cooking is a way of predigesting food, which allows some of the energy originally necessary for digestion to be reallocated. Some scientists believe a portion of that energy went to supporting the development of bigger brains.

The question that emerges is what brought on the enlargement of the neocortex? How did cleverness and politics fit into these early meals?