Meat, Fire and Evolution: How Barbeque Made Us Human

April 3, 2018

(I wrote this article for the Spring 2018 edition of UK BBQ Mag, after reading below please check out the magazine here.)

 

The aromas and flavours we get from our barbeques as they flavour meat with smoke and turn large inedible pieces of meat into unctuous morsels, evokes in us a sense that it is in some way a link to our distant past, where our early ancestors only had live fire as a cooking method.  I used to think this emotional response was little more than a romantic nod to our evolutionary past.  However, there is evidence that cooked food, in particular meat, was not just an important part of our evolutionary history, but in fact the most significant evolutionary step that has driven human evolution.

 

Meat, but no fire.

 

In his book ‘Sapiens’, Yuval Noah Harari points out that an advantage early humans gained over other species, before the controlled use of fire, was the use of tools to break open bones from carrion and extract the calorie rich bone marrow within.  However, it would be almost a million years later before the editor of UK BBQ magazine would flavour and baste a bone-in ribeye with bone marrow dripping off a burning silver birch stick!  In addition to tool use for the extraction of bone marrow, the eating of meat is also attributed as an important aspect of human evolution.

 

A month prior to his death the well-known food writer, A.A. Gill, was a panellist in a debate on the Intelligence 2 series where he stated that “One of the most important things that ever, ever happened to us as a species, was that we ate meat”.  Whilst there is huge archaeological and evolutionary evidence to support this statement it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

 

The first Pitmasters.

 

In his book ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human’ Richard Wrangham argues that rather than eating raw meat, it was the ability to cook meat that was responsible for the evolution of Homo erectus from their predecessors, Homo habilis, around 1.8 million years ago.  It goes without saying that the cooking of meat 1.8 million years ago would have been done over an open fire, and looked, and probably tasted, remarkably like what we consider barbeque today.

 

Meat eating was already a dietary feature of Homo erectus’ predecessors such as chimpanzees, but chimpanzee’s jaws are unsuited to chewing unprocessed meat and their intestinal organs are not able to fully digest it.  Quite simply, if you are a primate and you want to eat raw meat then there is a cost that comes with it.  You need large, energy intensive, intestinal organs and you need to devote a lot of time to chewing and digestion, time that could be spent eating food which yields its calories much easier, such as raw fruit.

 

There are ways in which meat can be made more digestible, such as tenderising, a technique pioneered by Homo habilis some 2 million years ago, who used stone tools to slice off steaks of meat and then pulverise it with a rock, in the same we might do today with a meat tenderiser.  Whilst this makes meat more digestible, it alone is not associated with any significant evolutionary development.  Wrangham argues that it was the ability to cook (barbeque) and consume cooked meat that drove the evolution of Homo habilis into Homo erectus, the first humans to master the regular and deliberate control of fire for the purposes of cooking.

 

The logic behind the evolutionary theory that barbeque was the driving factor behind human evolution is thus:

  1. Cooking meat provides more easily obtainable calories than raw meat.  Eating cooked meat means you do not require large, energy intensive intestinal organs.  Other evolutionary features of eating barbeque are the smaller teeth and jaws seen in Homo sapiens compared to those of our predecessors, and other primates.

  2. The increased energy available to the rest of the body from smaller intestinal organs can now be used for other purposes.  The most evolutionary advantageous use of this surplus energy was to grow bigger brains with a higher density of neurons.  The first humans, Homo habilis, had a brain size of 37 cubic inches.  Their successors, Homo erectus, evolved to have a brain size of 53 cubic inches, who evolved into us, Homo sapiens, who have a bran size of 85 cubic inches.  This growth in brain size, however, comes with an increased energy bill, our brains account for 20% of the energy our bodies use at rest, compared to 13% in primates and 8-10% in mammals.  Early Homo sapiens would have been unable to fuel their energy demanding brains unless they were able to digest food in a timely, effective manner, associated with the consumption of cooked meat.

  3. As humans evolved they were able to more easily obtain the energy needed from a reduced intake of food (not to mention the increased vitamins and minerals present in meat) which meant they stood a reduced risk from malnutrition and starvation.  Those better able to obtain calories from food would have been better able to reproduce and as a result pass on their superior genes.

So, the ability to successfully barbeque on a regular basis meant our ancestors evolved smaller guts, smaller teeth and smaller jaws, and also evolved to have bigger brains, characteristic of modern day humans.  However, these are only the physical traits that evolved from our ability to barbeque, and what separates humans from other primates extends far beyond our physical characteristics.  Yes, the human ability barbeque also drove our social and cultural evolution.

Homo erectus: the first Pitmasters.  Credit: Christian Jegou/ Public Photo Diffusion/ SPL.

 

Barbeque maketh-the-man.

 

The collection, preparation and cooking of meat has also had a longstanding effect on how our human societies and distinctively human behaviours evolved.  Meat can be found by chance, and indeed for early humans, carrion would have been the main source.  For a more reliable source of meat you need to hunt for it, and hunting requires co-operation and a unique set of social developments.  When hunting, there is always the risk that you will come home empty handed.  Sharing meat between members of your own species means that if one hunting party comes back unsuccessful, the success of another hunting party will benefit the wider group.  This, however, only works if there is an understanding of the moral standards among the group.  It is no chance then, that the sharing of food to unrelated members of your own species is a uniquely human attribute.  However, the link between barbeque and hunting goes deeper than this, in fact you cannot hunt unless you have the ability to barbeque.  If we ate the same raw diet as big apes we would need to spend five hours a day chewing, compared to the thirty-six minutes a day which we now average.  So if Homo erectus was not able to cook what he hunted, he would have to spend an additional five hours a day eating what he had hunted, this is on top of the time it took him to hunt in the first place.  This doesn’t even consider that he might not have a successful hunt, in which case he would have to go out and gather additional raw food and then spend another five hours chewing and digesting it.  The ability to hunt, and provide a reliable source of meat, is therefore dependent on higher levels of social relationships between members of your species and the ability to barbeque.

 

Once early humans had the ability to barbeque, they also had the ability to provide light, which meant they were able to prepare and consume food after dark.  This gave them additional time in which to prepare, cook and eat food, something that species without access to fire were unable to do.  This is in addition to the extra protection that a fire gave early humans in their ability to ward off predators, a very real problem when they were not the top of the food chain.

 

Another uniquely human trait is that almost all cultures have similar, well-defined meal patterns compared to our primate cousins, who don’t have breakfast, lunch and dinner, unless you are a primate who lives in a zoo.  Cooking meant that mealtimes had to be a cooperative and social affair, so that those providing the meat knew when they needed to be present to consume it and those tending the fire knew when to light it and be prepared to watch it.  This meant that early pitmasters had to be more static than their ancestors. 

 

One side effect of cooking over a wood fire is that the incomplete combustion of wood releases harmful compounds, namely Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Studies of our genome versus that of Neanderthals has revealed that we are able to synthesize PAHs more effectively than our primate counterparts.  What this means is that we have effectively evolved to be more resilient to the harmful effects of cooking over a wood fire than our primate counterparts.  This then begs the question, are we the only human species still in existence because not only were we able to deliberately barbeque meat, but also evolve to not be effected by the harmful compounds that allowed us to cook it in the first place?

 

What did the first barbeque look and taste like?

 

Homo habilis was the first of our ancestors to barbeque meat, but what we do not know was what the first barbeque looked, smelled and tasted like and how it came to be.  Homo habilis would have had the ability to keep a log slowly burning on the ground whilst they slept in trees, where perhaps they may have dropped a few morsels of raw meat onto the slowly burning log and found them in the morning.  But let’s go back to where we started, A.A. Gill, and see what he thought the first barbeque looked like.  He challenges quote that too-often makes an appearance on the walls of gastropubs, “it was a brave man who first ate an oyster”, which he states isn’t the case, and contends that:

 

the really brave man was the first man that ate a burnt animal.  Can you imagine how terrifying that must have been?  All you’ve ever seen of fire is horrifying, and suddenly you come across this thing that stinks of death and burning…and the missus says…I bet you wouldn’t eat that?  But he does…and it changes everything.  Eating big bits of meat…eating big animals, means cooperation.  If you cook it, you can feed old people with bad teeth and young people with no teeth.”

 

            What A.A. Gill does, is get to the essence of what it means to be human and how barbeque, the cooking of large pieces of meat over fire, was responsible for the evolutionary changes that drove our evolution from apes to humans.  This rationale means that those palaeontologists looking for the ‘missing link’ need to look no further than early Pitmasters, and no I don’t mean large, hairy, ape-like barbeque chefs, but Homo erectus, the first Pitmasters.  Richard Wrangham states that “cooking is the missing link…defining the human essence…I pin our humanity on cooks.”  I disagree, I say we pin our humanity on Pitmasters.

 

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