Studying history and evolution might not be interesting for some people, but the transformation of Human-beings from an ape to a fully self-conscious, expressive, and self-regulating organism is a fact that still incites a spark of curiosity among many. From the origin of civilization, we have continuously adapted to changes, physically, mentally, or biologically. The Discovery of fire, the invention of gleaming light bulbs and now the 4G smart phones; and numerous other marvelous inventions had driven us to the 21st century and most of which plays an integral role in shaping our lives, our society, and human culture. Humans have created their own social world with no boundaries but unlimited dimensions. But there’s one such development human took, about which nobody talks by and large, significant yet hidden in our lifestyle. Cooking. Yes! Cooking. We cook almost every day but have you ever wondered as to why humans eat cooked food? Why is it so necessary? Well, a candid answer that comes to our mind is that it makes the food softer, easier to chew, and becomes more palatable. But there’s a lot more than that.
History of cooking
Cooking or cookery is an act of using heat to prepare food for consumption. It is both an art and a cherished science. Speaking from the view of evolutionary and archaeological analysis, studies suggest that some species of humans may have started cooking around 1.8 to 2.3 million years ago, consequent to the discovery of fire. Anthropologists have evidence that Homo erectus lived between 1.9 and 2 million years ago were the first human species to learn the controlled use of fire and built shared fireplaces for cooking food.
Though, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists still haven’t figured out how the process began and took place. In early times, Humans probably didn’t deliberately cook food and it is plausible to say that it was accidental. It might have been the first time that primitive humans relished cooked food when they ate roasted meat, which was unwittingly the flesh of a beast killed in a forest fire and found it pleasant. These human species are extinct today. Nonetheless, we should be grateful to our ancestral primates for this remarkable discovery. The most primitive way of cooking is roasting. For consumption, early humans roasted hunted animals on open fire as there are archaeological pieces of evidence from thousands of years ago, in the form of burnt, charred animal bones and ancient hearths which supports this fact. The Klasies river cave in Southern cape, South Africa, is the site of the most recent archaeological evidence, which briefs that anatomically, modern humans were roasting and consuming plant starches, such as those from tubers and rhizomes more than 1,200,000 years ago.
In 2012, researchers found traces of plant and animal ashes hinting us that, humans used fire to prepare food a million year ago, at the WonderWerk caves, in South Africa. Although, it is difficult to picturise as to when, how and from where did it all start through archaeological support but still it reasons that cooking has played an elemental role in human evolution and early humans accustomed it in their lifestyle, to a great deal.
Consuming cooked food has many uses and benefits. It makes the food chewable, softer and predigests it for our body. It improves tastes which makes it more pleasurable to our taste buds. Cooking raw food also kills harmful microbial contaminants and turns it germless. Raw uncooked food (excluding fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds are eaten raw) incorporates a large number of unhealthy microorganisms, mostly bacteria, fungi, and yeast that might upset your stomach. It is found that raw meat houses Salmonella, Campylobacter, E.coli, Yersinia, and other bacteria which are potential pathogens that can cause illnesses and make you sick.
Getting rid of bacteria has another advantage in that it makes the food lasts longer and spoil-free for some time.
Cooking breaks down complex molecules, denatures proteins, tough fibers, and cell walls of plant-sourced eatable, making it a lot easier for the human body to digest and absorb nutrients effectively. Cooked meal is assimilated wholly by the body whereas raw unheated food is able to give out only 30-40% of desired nutrients, which is surprising. Another fascinating fact had been deduced by our researchers, tell that cooking increases the net energy content greatly, resulting in higher calories.
Richard Wrangham, Chairperson of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, in his elaborate studies, discovered that cooking helped humans to extract more energy out of food. He worked out that increase in calorie gain from cooking proved to be in the range of 25-30%. “The more processed our foods, the more calories we get out of them. The energy gain is the primary reason we eat.” -He informed.
Developing Brains and Societies’
Just because ancestral humans began to eat cooked meals, allowed them to spend less time in hunting, foraging, digesting food and instead get involved in growing civilization, developing societies and languages and spare themselves in doing many productive activities like agriculture, commerce, trade, traveling and communication.
Cooking answers one of the most riveting question which comes to our mind; ‘Why humans are special and why we have such well-developed brain?’ Brazilian Neuroscientist, Suzanna Herculano-Houzel and her colleague conducted an interesting study at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, trying to compare brains of humans to other animals like primates and rodents in terms of size and diet. They found that Gorilla, the largest primates eats for about 8.5 hours a day while their cousins, Chimpanzees spend about 7 hours feeding on raw foods like berries, nuts, etc. Even humans, the great apes did that before cooking was invented. No primate can accommodate both a large brain and a large body if they spend 9 hours eating because they just can’t get enough energy out of raw foods.
The modern human brain is an energy-expensive, big chunk of 86 billion neurons, which uses 25% of all the energy that the body needs. She explained that the invention of cooking resulted in making the food yield more metabolic energy and allowed humans to develop the largest primate brain. It provided us considerably more nutrition needed to develop our brains and also to devote more time to interesting things.
The remarkable cognitive abilities of human beings can also be attributed to this pristine invention. As our brains enlarged, the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex augmented drastically. If you ask why then the simplest answer is that we cook. Cooking helped us to reach the largest number of cortical neurons, than any other animal brain, making it the biggest of all. No other animal cooks its own food, it’s the humans who do.
An Art and a Science
Today, Cooking has established itself both as an indulging art and applied science. Many people argue, it’s more of an art but we all accept that it involves its own share of Chemistry, Mathematics, and even Physics. Creativity, technicality, concoction, visualization, perception of tastes, unique ideas to blend ingredients, and fusion of all sorts of stuff to bring out the perfect dish, are those skills that a chef or a cook must possess. Presently, cooking is more driven towards tastes & enhancing flavors but also in making our experience delightful and enjoyable as much as it could be. It’s a highly embellished profession now, where chefs are ceaselessly trying to achieve perfection in the art of bringing sensational flavors out of every dish they cook. Cooking is more like an experiment for them where they combine different elements: spices, oils, vegetables, fruits, condiments to anticipate products that might be out of the ordinary but phenomenal.
Cooking reflects variations based on socio-economic, cultural, and environmental aspects. Cuisines are foods and methods of cooking indigenous to a geographical region. Rice, noodles, beans, and soy food have an eminent place in Asian cuisine but they might differ from European or American cuisines. Climate and other physical factors govern what kind of food habits will people develop and determines the raw materials that are available to cook.
We, humans, had come really far now and cooking has evolved overages. From primordial mechanisms, like roasting, boiling to recently popular techniques of microwaving and baking,
Cooking methods have ameliorated to such a great extent. Humans have invented numerous ways with contemporaneous advances in technology that it’s a lot easier for us to cook. Other newer ways are Sautéing, stewing, braising, and En Papillote (cooking in parchment or into a folded parcel).
Every day, we are constantly endeavoring to discover new things, new elements, exoplanets, and new species; highlighting facts and debunking myths; finding innovation and incorporating it into our own action to meet our goals, and reinventing the very facets of life.
Cooking is an activity that only humans do and eventually made us what we are. Cooking was a critical step in human evolution that must be praised, for changing humans to a seemingly exceptional and ultimately the greatest organism of the living world.
The next time when you walk into your kitchen and see your mother cooking, praise your ancestors for this extraordinary invention, and don’t hesitate to tell her that it’s the smartest thing she’s doing.
By Topesh Kumar Dhruw