Spring is a celebration of life, warmth, and sunlight. It ushers in outdoor dining, drinking, and cooking. It’s time to brush the remaining winter detritus off the barbecue and throw masses of meat on the grill. It is also a time to ponder the notion that cooking over an open fire is an ancient ritual. Traces of ash found in the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa suggest that hominins were controlling fire at least 1 million years ago, the time of our direct ancestor Homo erectus. Burnt bone fragments also found at this site suggest that Homo erectus was cooking meat. Our ancestors largely ate whatever they could; berries, grasses, fruits, and bits of small animals were probably the main fare. We know early proto-humans had an eclectic, mostly vegetarian, diet 3 million years ago because of the shape and size of their teeth – small front teeth and with short canines and large, flat molars. They had mouths built for grinding, not for ripping apart flesh. Then, around 2.5 million years ago, meat became a very big deal.
Milton of the University of California, Berkeley, claims that early humans were
forced into this dietary change because the forests of Africa were receding and
these hominids simply couldn’t get enough plant matter to stay alive. In
support of this claim, archaeologists have found 2.5 million year old stone
tools clearly used to butcher animals and to smash bones to access the marrow. And for the next few million
years, humans apparently stuffed themselves with raw meat. Then, something
radical happened. Somewhere, somehow, somebody offered up that meat cooked.
Maybe early humans stumbled across the charred
remains of an antelope killed in a brush and took advantage of the moment. Maybe
they lit a fire themselves for light and warmth and while eating a bison
dropped a leg into the fire by mistake. Whatever
the impetus, humans began eating cooked
meats at least 700,000 years ago, and they never looked back.
But why bother with cooking meat at all? It takes time and energy to build a fire, create specific cuts, invent the grill, and then clean up. At the most basic level, cooked meat simply tastes better, and our ancestors were apparently instant turned on to this. From the moment meat met fire, humans became gourmets. But the shift may also have evolutionary reasons. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham speculates that controlled fire and cooked meat were implicated in human brain evolution. He asserts that humans actually may have been cooking their prey as far back as 1.6 million years ago, just when our genus was experiencing major brain expansion. Cooked meat, it turns out, was still full of protein when raw but easier to digest when cooked, and so natural selection might have opted for smaller guts. All that saved digestive energy may well have then gone into making bigger brains. If that position is right, the big human dietary shift was not so much the move to meat, but the move to cooked meat, which made us smarter and more inventive.
And then there is the cultural aspect of cooking. The oldest remains of obvious hearths are just 400,000 years old. Cooking requires cognitive skills that go beyond controlling fire, such as the ability to resist the temptation to scoff the ingredients, patience, memory and an understanding of the transformation process. With that comes greater organization, richer storytelling, and increasingly stronger social bonds. In other words, without fire and without the grill, even in its most primitive form, culture wouldn’t have developed, at least not in a way we would recognize today. Criticism of meat centers around modern manufacturing methods, which are often seen as lowering the quality of meat. Another part of the criticism is that meat derives from animals, raising ethical dilemmas (as well as a sense of unease or repulsion for some people). Meat is frequently perceived as unhealthy. Regardless of how we perceive meat, the fact remains that its place in the evolution of human culture and the significance it holds at the table today are deeply rooted in the shaping of the human experience. Cooking has evolved into one of the most varied and inventive elements of human culture. We cook thousands of different types of animal, plant, and fungus using a dazzling array of techniques. We spend far more hours planning, shopping for, and preparing food than actually eating it. We then sit down to watch programs about it, hosted by people who have become millionaire household names. Meat’s status reflects the myriad cultural contexts in which it is socially constructed in people’s everyday lives, particularly with respect to religious, gender, communal, racial, national, family, and class identity. We barbeque, therefore we are. Something to ponder when gathering around the table.