The Austin Chronicle

Book Review

Reviewed by Rachel Feit, July 24, 2009, Food

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

by Richard Wrangham
Basic Books, 320 pp., $26.95

There have been many writers, from Brillat-Savarin to modern-day food anthropologists, who have remarked that cooking is a defining aspect of our humanity. These assertions have typically formed the basis for texts that have stressed the cultural importance of foodways and cuisine. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist, makes a convincing case that in fact we are evolutionarily adapted to the practice of cooking.

Deftly weaving together literature on health, diet, paleontology, archaeology, biology, and anthropology, Wrangham lays out his argument: Cooked food contains more calories, is easier to chew and digest, and hence provides more energy than raw food. According to studies on the dietary needs of humans, he finds that our bodies actually rely on the energy released from cooked foods. In no culture, he points out, is food eaten only raw, and this, he argues, is just as much a function of nature as culture.

Sorry, raw-foodists: Wrangham trots out dietary studies that suggest an entirely raw-food diet is only sustainable for modern humans living in a society where food is generally obtained at the local grocery store. Primitive hunter-gatherers can't sustain a raw-food diet because humans simply cannot consume enough to offset the caloric hemorrhaging required to obtain, chew, and digest only raw foods.

Wrangham then traces the archaeological and paleontological evidence back through human evolution and finds that several lines of evidence hint that cooking began well before the time when Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus nearly 200,000 years ago. This includes not only direct evidence for cooking, such as fire pits, but biological evidence that shows a steady decline in gut and jaw size, suggesting that the foods early hominids ate may have become easier to chew and digest over time. Meanwhile, cranial capacity steadily enlarged, and this, he proposes, may be due to greater consumption of highly caloric foods known to increase the brain's mass.

Sewing it all together, Wrangham posits that cooking and the dietary benefits it confers played a crucial role in hominid evolution and the entire arc of human social development. This delightful book is scholarly and well-researched without being overly brainy. It is full of ideas that will no doubt be debated in years to come.

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