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Catching fire. How cooking made us human.

catchbingfireBy Richard Wrangham

Basic Books, 2009

With an already promising title, this book presents a fascinating anthropological and historical journey that begins at the dawn of the first hunter-gatherer hominids; presenting all sorts of hard archaeological evidence the author takes us through a comparative journey where we see all the coincidences between hominids, primates and humans, aiming to find out the common and distinctive features that marked the appearance of the early humanoid societies.

Having food and the safekeeping of fire at the centre of the group’s activities, the author comes up with the hypothesis that the need to spend prolonged periods of time together, forced individuals to develop social skills, including language, tolerance, cooperation, altruism and a sense of togetherness.

The book presents a staggering amount of physiological data about the differences between raw and cooked diets, the benefits and weaknesses of each diet on the evolution of our digestive systems and brain functions.

The author analyses the consumption of raw foods of animal and vegetal origin and the impact in out bodies’ metabolism, arguing that the chemical alteration of proteins lead to a more efficient use of energy, furthermore the use of fire “freed hunters from previous time constraints by reducing the time spent chewing….hunting could contribute to the full development of the family household, reliant as it is on predictable economic exchange between women (doing the cooking) and men (providing meat from the hunting activities)”.

Moving forward the evolution of human societies and household agreements, the author presents a series of cross-cultural evidence that proves time after time the same similarities household arrangements between men and women; women providing a reliable source of food for the group and men providing the main source of protein by means of hunting or fishing. “From ethnographic reports it seems that this domestic service is often the most important contribution a wife makes to their partnership”… “cooking ends with individual self-sufficiency. Cooking needs not be a social activity but a woman needs a man to guard her food, and she needs the community to back him up.

This book has to be read with all clarity and scientific calm, feminist’s arguments are not relevant. The author is not trying to make any sort of gender-based propaganda, but merely presenting anthropological evidence to constant behavioural patterns.

The book is divided into the following chapters:

The cooking hypothesis.

  1. Quest for raw foodists
  2. The cook’s body
  3. The energy theory of cooking
  4. When cooking began
  5. Brain foods
  6. How cooking frees men
  7. The married cook
  8. The cook’s journey

Epilogue: the well informed cook.

“Sigmund Freud thought the control of fire lead to self-control…Freud’s notion is far-fetched, but he was right about one thing: our species must have changed radically when we learnt to live with flames”.

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