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How We Evolved To Eat What We Do

How did we go from sitting in trees eating fruit to baking bread, sipping wine, and searching for lasagna recipes on the internet? We can tell the story in 9 recipes. These recipes represent our ancestors' slowly evolving diet through the millennia. Because what they ate determined who we would became: the web-surfing, recipe-reading, wine-sipping ape that cooks.

1. Fresh Fruit and Nuts

For most of our time on earth, we ate ingredients. Fruit, nuts, berries, tubers, seeds, insects, and so on. When did we combine them into a stew? When did we apply culture to cooked food to create cuisine? Ok, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Honey Lime Fruit Salad

Photo by lutzflcat

We'll begin up in the trees, hanging with our fruit-eating primate cousin, the chimp-like last common ancestor (Chimpanzee-Human Last Common Ancestor, or CLCA), who lived about 7 million years ago. If like our ancient cousin, you're adapted to eat fruit, then life's pretty sweet. Until it's not. Because to thrive, you require a climate where fruit is plentiful. And you need trees. Lots of fruit-bearing trees. Basically, your survival is dangerously tied to your narrowly focused diet. Climates change, the fruit trees dwindle, and then you’re in a heap of trouble. Unless you adapt.

2. Root Vegetables

And adapt is just what our ancestors do. By expanding their diet, they're able to extend themselves out beyond the fruited forests, into a more wide-open or mixed woodland environment, where there are plants, roots, tubers, and grubs to scrounge.

Savory Roasted Root Vegetables

Photo by StacySnook

It's about 4 million years ago. Now we're standing and walking upright, which helps cover the distance between meals. But we can still climb a tree like a champ, if not exactly like a chimp. Oh, one caveat. Our ancestors won’t be cooking the savory root vegetables pictured above, not until they're feeling comfy with fire. Stay tuned.

3. Raw Meat

Yes, “adaptable” is a word that pretty much defines our species. Our ability to adapt our diets to a shifting environment helped set us on our way.

A Meatheart for Your Sweetheart

A Meatheart for Your Sweetheart

It is now about 2.6 million years ago, give or take. We are opportunists. When we can, we scavenge meat and nutrient-rich marrow from bones of the carcasses of animals killed by swifter, stronger, fiercer carnivores of the field. When the coast is clear, we make our move, cautiously. Some of our first stone tools may have been used to smash bones to get at the marrow and to pound and process tough tubers and other coarse foods, making them easier to chew and digest. In time, we will actively hunt these animals with stone tools we shape with our hands. And we'll be rewarded with more than leftover scraps of meat.

And in a related story, these long-tailed macaques are using stone and shell tools to dislodge and crack open rock oysters. Notice how the monkey skillfully adjusts its grip after picking up the tool. Pretty cool.

primate with tools - monkeys in action

4. Honey

Every animal eats food. But we humans are the only animal that cooks it. Of course, you can't cook until you've come to terms with fire.

Honey

Photo by Allrecipes

As a species, you've got to make your peace with the flames. It's no easy task. The process of taming fire would likely have evolved over thousands of years. We'd begin as curious primates, scavenging the crispy, roasted bugs from the ashes of a recently lightning-struck tree; next, we'd approach fire for warmth and protection from predators; eventually, we'd nurture these natural fires, adding grasses, wood, maybe dried dung to flames to extend their usefulness to us. One early use of fire? Bum-rushing the bee hives to get the sweet honey. Smoke actually calms bees.

5. Cooked Food

When did we first control fire? The timing is not clear. Small cooking fires set so many thousands of years ago out on the savannah don't leave much of a footprint for modern anthropologists to follow. Was it 1 million years ago? 2 million? Maybe less, maybe more.

Emily's Marinated Venison Steaks

Photo by TerryAkins

At any rate, by the time we are actually putting our food over fire, we have already been enjoying the advantages of an expanded diet for hundreds of thousands of years. We're omnivores. But cooked food is a game changer. Cooked food has significant advantages over raw: you can derive more energy from food when it's cooked, and digesting cooked food requires less energy. And with the energy gains, come enormous benefits. For one, the extra energy opens up the chance to build a bigger brain. Why? Because brains require a ton of energy to run them. Fueling our brains takes up more than 20-percent of total calories consumed. Cooked food provides the energy. The implication of cooking food is enormous: We cook food not because we're advanced creatures; we are advanced creatures because we cooked food.

6. The Domesticated Snail

With our fancy big brains, we're putting ourselves in the driver’s seat. Not literally, of course. There's nothing to drive. The wheel is a ways off yet. But culture is now a booming business. Technology has been unleashed, set off on a steep trajectory.

Escargot Mushrooms

Photo by catherine.drew

Our tools are becoming more sophisticated, finely tuned for the specifics of hunting, fishing, and preparing foods. By 50,000 years ago, we can say hello to the sewing needle, the fish hook, the harpoon, darts and spear adaptations, bows and arrows...and language. And those snails? They may have been among the earliest "domesticated" animals. Snail ranching, as it were, requires little more than observing animal behaviour and then creating an environment that allows them to be fruitful and multiply.

7. Bread

We're closing in on about 12,000 years ago. We're part of the natural world, keenly adapted and adapting to it. But we're also starting to shape the world to our specifications.

Simple Whole Wheat Bread

Photo by LynnInHK

We're manipulating the plants and animals that are there, selecting the best among them, and altering them to our advantage. Farming, the Neolithic Revolution, is just around the corner. And what about bread? Baking bread is not exactly a complicated process (it's just a few ingredients), but it’s a terribly complicated idea. There is simply nothing intuitive about turning the small hard grains from a stalk of grass into bread. Bread is a cultural product. It requires keen human insight and ingenuity applied to ingredients. Bread is the beginning of cuisine.

8. World Cuisine

Today, it's hard to imagine Italian food without ripe red tomatoes. Indian or Thai food without spicy chile peppers. Or even conceive of Kansas without conjuring up golden fields of waving wheat. But when you take the long view, you see that these ingredients are all very recent additions to these culinary landscapes.

Flank Steak Roulade

Photo by Chef John

We had to wait until the early 16th century for the Spanish to conquer the New World and return to the Old with potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, and chile peppers. We would have to wait even longer for these ingredients to be accepted and adopted into world cuisines. Take Chef John's Flank Steak Roulade recipe, for example. It includes a world's worth of ingredients. Dried fruit and nuts (favored foods of our ancient primate cousins), bread crumbs (derived from the grain of an edible grass domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent), tomatoes (domesticated in Mesoamerica by at least 500 BCE), wine (first fermented thousands of years ago, possibly in present-day Turkey), Parmesan-Reggiano cheese (courtesy of a preserving technique that also dates to thousands of years ago), and olive oil (from the fruit of the olive tree, likely first cultivated thousands of years ago in Asia Minor). To complete the world tour, we can serve our flank steak beside mashed potatoes (a staple crop first domesticated about 8,000 years ago in the area around modern-day Peru and Bolivia). Yes, it's a wee world in the end. Shrunk right down to the size of a dinner plate. And for all this variety, for our wonderful wide-open palates, we have our ancient ancestors to thank. Adventurous eaters all (and then some), adapted to eat a diverse diet. Set a salad before a cat, and it turns away. Give a pork chop to a hungry herbivore, and it stays hungry. But a human? We'll eat it all. So then, what are we adapted to eat? Fruit and tree nuts? Roots and tubers? Meat and grubs? Shellfish and dairy? Greens and grains? The answer is yes.

9. Oh, But Wait...

That's not the entire story. Turns out, we're not in this thing alone. Each of us is carrying with us a microbiome comprised of trillions of microbes. They're on the skin and in the mouth, but primarily in the gut, particularly the large intestine. We've co-evolved with these critters. And they play vital roles in human health, including areas of immune function, vitamin production (particularly B vitamins), hormone production (serotonin), digestion, and more.

Sauerkraut Salad

Photo by Caroline C

The microbiome is a fascinating new area of research, promising new insight into what it means to be human. Stay tuned, it's a developing story....

Related Reading:

For more on the importance of cooked food on human evolution, check out Professor Richard Wrangham's book, Catching Fire, or watch his lecture How Cooking Made Us Human

Read about birds that have evolved to lead humans to honey: The honeyguides.

For more on how diet affected the development of the human body, read The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Professor Daniel Lieberman.

Was the Agricultural Revolution a total win for humanity? Read Jared Diamond’s article for a fascinating perspective.

For insights on what to feed your microbiota, see Congratulations, You're A Superogranism. Now Eat Like It. You might also like What to Eat on the Paleo Diet.


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Carl Hanson

About Carl Hanson

Carl will eat that. Share with him @CarlNo9 on Twitter.