MUMBAI - A new Harvard University study says cooking led to civilization and
where we are now. Our ancestors first discovered the origin to chow mein and
curries 1.9 million years ago - and cooking helped them outrace other primates
By cooking food, says the study submitted to the US National Academy of
Sciences and released August 22, human ancestors softened food, and softer food
required less time to chew. In contrast, cows, primates and other animals
continue investing 48% or more of their working day moving their jaws to
process meals. And humanity has evolved on to using jaws to make Skype calls
and election speeches.
So the world's oldest profession is being a chef, observed Science News. The
Washington-based biweekly along with Scientific
American published excerpts of the unique study on August 22.
"Unique among animals, humans eat a diet rich in cooked and non-thermally
processed food," says the study by Chris Organ, Harvard University professor of
Evolutionary Biology, and his colleagues Charles Nunnb, Zarin Machanda and
Richard Wranghamb, "The ancestors of modern humans who invented food
processing, including cooking, gained critical advantages in survival and
fitness through increased caloric intake."
The study compared the jaws of human ancestors with a variety of primates, the
top-ranked mammals, like 12 species of lemurs (Strepsirrhini), 28
species of New World monkeys (Platyrrhini), and 33 species of Old World
monkeys, gibbons, and apes (Catarrhini). Co-author Machanda has for the
last 14 years studied captive and wild African chimpanzees, understanding
social relationships between them and other primates.
The Harvard University researchers found that early humans spent a tenth as
much time in feeding, relative to body size, than fellow primates who are
currently still climbing trees. With more varied activity from less time
chewing food, the brain size of humans too became larger in proportion to body
size, and led to presumably greater intelligence.
It also led to ancient cooking techniques like stone boiling that involves
placing stones into or next to a hearth or other fire source. The heated stones
are then placed in a vessel containing water, liquid or semi-solid food. The
hot stones heat the food - a technique used by some modern restaurants in the
In Asia, the earliest Chinese cooking systems are credited to Emperor Sui Ren
(2,737-2,697 BC), who concluded that eating raw food causes disease. So perhaps
Emperor Ren with his cooking revolution is the unofficial grandfather of
Ancient Chinese historian and astronomer Sima Qian (145-90 BC) pushed cooking
to the next higher dimension in human history. He declared that Yi Yin, the
earliest well-known prime minister to Chinese emperors, became prime minister
because he was a fantastic cook.
Sima Qian, or Ssi-ma Ch'ien, wrote in his celebrated Shiji, or "Records
of the Historian", that Yin was originally Ah Heng, a slave of the Youxinshi
family. In due course of life as a free man, Yi Yen wished to convey to Emperor
Tang his humble ideas on how to run the empire.
Yen, perhaps founder of the school of thought that the way to a man's heart is
through his stomach, arrived for the appointment with the emperor armed with
his kitchen utensils. He proceeded to cook a feast so delicious that the sated
emperor decided anyone with such outstanding ability to cook would also have an
outstanding ability to govern the country.
Emperor Tang, according to official Chinese history, was right. Yi Yen did a
good job as prime minister. (And if top chefs have a greater calling, Seiji
Yamamoto at Tokyo's Nihonryori Ryugin, voted the world's top Asian cuisine
restaurant in 2011 in a British magazine survey, would make a reasonable
premier, especially given that Japan has had six prime ministers in the last
Other cooks flourished in ancient Chinese politics. Peng Zu, hailed as founder
of Chinese cooking, became a confidant of one of the great Chinese emperors
Emperor Yao, about 4,000 years ago.
Less time chewing food was converted into more time preparing elaborate feasts.
Historical records say that imperial kitchens in the Zhou Dynasty (11th century
BC-476 BC) had 22 departments and over 2,300 food and beverages staff. This is
reckoned to be the golden age of Chinese cooking.
Cooked food reflected imperial ranking too. The emperor was offered a minimum
of 26 bowls of various dishes every meal. Princes and dukes were given 16
dishes, marquis had 13, senior officials feasted on eight goodies and their
juniors had mere six-course meals.
All this imperial feasting, we now know, dates back to nearly two million years
ago when some cave dwelling person perhaps accidentally spilled uncooked food
into the fire lit to keep warm, and discovered cooked food and civilization.
The Harvard University study found a "substantial evolutionary rate change' in
the feeding time of humans after the human-chimpanzee split from living in
Chewing cooked food also led to humans having smaller jaws and lesser molar
teeth size - and perhaps saving humanity from even more painful dentist fees.
Humans had to spend only about 5% of a day eating, and developed other
activities and hobbies that led to most folks eating to have energy to work,
instead of living to eat.
Not that everyone, of course, delighted in or depended on cooked food. If the
strong citizens of ancient Sparta gave much thought to food, it was about
eating less of it. In the Himalayas, where the gods live, hermits in solitude
live healthily off berries and less.
Ancient India, over 2,500 years ago, discovered the double-edge sword of cooked
and thereby more delicious food: over-eating as the largest cause of aging.
More cellular activity in the metabolism of digesting food causes body cells
and organs to decay quicker.
Chimps and other primates, though, may not be entirely impressed with the new
Harvard University findings, or regret having missed the evolutionary express
bus. "Unlike you human fellows, we may be still spending far more time in trees
chewing uncooked chow," they might retort in sign language, "but at least we
haven't had time to make wars and global warming."
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