The Harnessing of Fire, Cooking, and How It Made Us Human

The Harnessing of Fire, Cooking, and How It Made Us Human

As temperatures finally start to slope downwards, as it finally starts feeling like autumn, as sweaters and sweatshirts begin layering naturally over T-shirts to provide comfort in the chilly morning air, the easy living of summer fades into memory. We start thinking about the cold weather ahead— even if in North Carolina, it may not get really cold for another few months before it starts to warm up again. As day gives way to night, summer slowly gives way to winter, and it is our instinct to begin searching for warmth. It is the same for almost all animals, as warmth and heat are vital for survival. Some animals hibernate in order to preserve their energy, some rely on their own food stores or fat stores to make it through the lean months, and humans have developed myriad genius ways of staying warm and keeping up our caloric intake when the sun’s heat and the bounty of nature is no longer available, and none of them are so essential to what it means to be human than the control of fire.

In 2009, primatologist Richard Wrangham published a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, and in this work, he lays out in exquisite detail, how cooking food was not a weird accident that happened well after modern Homo sapiens were around, but the crucial thing that helped turn us from an ordinary ape to an extraordinary ape, an ape capable of creating the Internet, exploring outer space, and writing books detailing our own history and evolution.

At the Saxapahaw General Store, we love to cook, and we’re certainly not alone. Within Saxapahaw, and in a 3 to 5-mile radius, in an area with a small rural population, we have five restaurants. Saxapahaw has one retail store, one school, one music venue, one small museum, one post office, and five restaurants— the Saxapahaw General Store, the Eddy Pub, Reverence Farm Cafe, and then Ulvia’s and Davis Grill & Pub down the road in Eli Whitney. In every town and major city, you’ll find the same thing, with places that serve cooked or prepared food far outnumbering any other type of establishment. People gotta eat, right?

Everyone has to eat, every living thing has to take in energy to survive, that’s not new or unique. Even cooking itself is not entirely, 100% unique to human beings— several species of birds, as well as some chimpanzees, elephants, bears, deer, and wild pigs will learn to take advantage of the aftermath of lightning strikes and naturally occurring wildfires to enjoy cooked vegetation and insects, but only humans have become almost entirely reliant on a steady, regular diet of cooked or processed food throughout their entire lifetime, and reaped the benefits of an easy-to-digest, high calorie food source to such an extent that it changed our entire physiology, biology, and chemistry so that we can do the things like drive cars, record musical compositions and invent cellphones. Richard Wrangham proposed that over 2 million years ago, it was our ancient ancestor Homo erectus who would change everything, by learning to use fire to cook and prepare foods, making possible the creation of other “smart apes” such as Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, Denisovans and us Homo sapiens.

Humans have big brains relative to our body size. Huge brains, packed with neurons. We don’t have sharp claws or sharp fangs, we can’t run as fast as a lot of our mammalian kin, and we’re not as strong. But boy, do we have these brains. Brains that require a whole lot of calories. Way more calories than can be gained on eating a wild raw foraged diet alone. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and gorillas eat this way, by eating whatever raw things they come across, and it takes them all day. They have much wider mouths and molars for pulverizing raw plant material, sharp teeth held in place by massive jaws and jaw muscles for ripping apart raw flesh, and over twice as much relative real estate on their insides for a digestive system capable of breaking down all of this raw material. By consuming cooked food on a regular basis, humans have increased the number of calories we can take in exponentially, and doing so in less time, and with less physical expenditure.

Cooking breaks down meat and plant matter to make it easily digestible. It changes the chemical composition to add nutritional value, and it adds calories, and calories are the currency of energy in any living thing.

Life is a numbers game, and when we can save energy on muscle mass, bone density and other specialized physical adaptations needed just to process food, we can use that energy for maintaining brains that consume nearly half of our daily caloric intake. Brains that we can use to create all the amazing things that make us human, with enough time to pursue our intelligence and creativity, and by supporting cooperation and the development of community.

“Food historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto proposed that cooking created mealtimes and thereby organized people into a community. For culinary historian Michael Symons, cooking promoted cooperation through sharing, because the cook always distributes food. Cooking, he wrote, is “the starting-place of trades.”
-Richard W. Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

As fall continues, and as fall turns into winter, cooking with fire will take center stage in our personal and social lives. Hot apple cider, pumpkin pie, green bean casseroles, cooked ham and turkey are not just comfortable rituals (though they are certainly that) they’re the very things that make us who we are as human beings. These foods cooked and processed by fire are the exact means by which we can sit down at a table created by some other person, dressed in crafted clothing, while a mother rebukes her child for looking at a high-tech cellphone, so that child can listen to a story of someone else traveling to a distant land in an airplane, when all the child wants is a temporary distraction during a weekend or a holiday before he or she has to return to school to learn history and mathematics, taught by adults who likely arrived to their jobs in a car or on a bus so they can teach out of books filled with generations of knowledge, with the hope that these children will one day make their own mark on human society in some way, and continue the millions-year-old lineage of human culture. All of this is possible through the art of cooking.

When people have created or retold stories of how humans came to be, or what makes humans unique in the animal kingdom, there’s one common theme– that humans were truly born when we were given the gift of fire. Whether you’re cooking at home or when you have someone else do the cooking for you, you’re participating in the most basic and fundamental activity of human life. Cooking is life, cooking is what it means to be human.