The Cooking Ape

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

Richard Wrangham, a British anthropologist and primatologist at Harvard University, argues that we are the cooking ape — and this has some not-so-obvious consequences:

Early human marriages, he suggests, were “primitive protection rackets”, in which men protected women from hungry marauders (attracted by the smoke of the fire) in return for a hot meal at the end of the day and, almost as an afterthought, babies. This is a radical notion — that domestic unions are mainly about food, not sex — but it’s not ridiculous. Anthropologists have noted that many primitive societies will tolerate a married woman sleeping around, but will ostracise her if she feeds any man other than her husband. In the ancestral struggle for survival, it seems, sustenance was more important than sex.

Human beings are unique in that when we cook, we do it to feed others as well as ourselves (other apes, even those who pair-bond, forage for themselves and don’t share). And in almost all societies it’s women who tend the stove. Having a husband ensures that a woman’s gathered food will not be stolen, while having a wife means a man will have an evening meal.

There’s nothing natural about a raw-food diet:

Survivors of disasters who get by on raw food invariably show signs of starvation when rescued.

The Giessen Raw Food study, conducted by German nutritionists in 2005, studied more than 500 people who ate a diet that was 70 to 100 per cent raw (vegetables, fruits, cold-pressed oil and honey, plus dried fruits, meat and fish). All the raw-foodists lost weight, sometimes dramatically; the scientists concluded that “a raw diet cannot guarantee an adequate energy supply”. And this in the well-fed West, where the supermarket rather than the forest floor is our larder. Our ancestors would surely have suffered more parlously.

But most damning of all was the finding that many women on the study stopped menstruating. Others saw their cycles become irregular. Conception and pregnancy — that most natural of biological processes — would be a rare feat on an uncooked diet. Wrangham’s message is clear: “I’m impressed by its potential to be a healthy diet but we must be aware of its limitations. I’m amazed at the willpower of some raw foodists but some are deluded; they are wrong about it being natural. If you are cast away on a desert island and you say, ‘I won’t bother cooking’, you will die.”

(I’ve mentioned Wrangham’s work twice before, in The Small-Mouthed Ape and What’s cooking?)

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