A new study suggests that the act of chopping up food helped to make the human race into what we are today.
Meat consumption also helped humans to evolve. Chopping and eating meat helped to provoke changes in ancient human anatomy, according to a study published in Nature journal this week. Humans evolved to have smaller faces and teeth after giving up on vegetarianism and starting spending more time doing food prep.
Anatomical changes provoked by change in behavior
Thanks to these anatomical changes, homo sapiens look more like we do today. They could also have helped early humans to run and talk. Other research showed that cooking was a turning point for human evolution, but the scientists responsible for this latest study maintain that cooking alone does not provide an explanation for the major changes to the head and face.
“Cooking is important, but it’s not the whole story,” says Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, an author of the new study. “What we show in this paper is that food processing” – slicing and pounding – “had really important and profound effects.”
Interestingly the paper relies on locally sourced goat carcasses. Liebmann and colleague Katherine Zink gave a diet of raw goat meat, yams, carrots and beets to a number of volunteers who Zink says were “nice enough to chew for science.” While the volunteers chewed, the scientists measured how many times they chewed and the strength of each bite.
Human evolution helped by developing diet
During tests the volunteers could not chew the tough goat, but when it was sliced into small chunks they needed far fewer chews to be able to swallow it. The same was found when comparing raw vegetables with those smashed with a stone.
The researchers believe that adding meat to our diet meant that our ancestors could get as many calories with less chewing. Without the need to have huge teeth and jaws, humans evolved smaller smaller snouts, which helped them run, and shorter jaws, which aid speech.
Scientists who were not involved in the study have praised its authors for looking into factors other than cooking. Matt Sponheimer of the University of Colorado, Boulder, said that he believes our ancestors may not have eaten a lot of meat, but he does think that chopping and pounding food helped to shape our anatomy.
Scientific community still divided over findings
Fellow Harvard scientist Richard Wrangham believes that cooking did play a role in developing smaller teeth and jaws. He points out that Homo erectus had quite a small digestive tract, which he believes would have been incapable of absorbing enough nutrients from raw plants.
However it is important to point out that very little at all is known about the guts of early humans. It wasn’t until around 500,000 years ago that there is solid evidence of humans roasting antelope.
“If there’s (earlier) evidence of fire, we don’t have it,” Lieberman says. “But what we do have evidence for is food processing. … You don’t have to invoke cooking to see what we see.”
Either way the findings are certainly interesting and the study serves to improve our understanding of human evolution and how it is related to food. Chopping may seem like a chore before you get to eat your meal, but it’s at least partially responsible for our good looks.