Burn, Baby, Burn: Fire and Human Evolution

When one thinks of camping, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a campfire. Campfires keep us warm, they make us feel safe in the dark, and they allow us to cook up hot dogs and s’mores. We almost take fire for granted these days, but there was a time when people didn’t know how to utilize it. So, let’s take it back, way back before the Stone Age – specifically, the time when people were transitioning from primates to Homo sapiens. Here’s how fire helped humans evolve into the alpha species that we are today.

The Spark That Started It All 

It’s not known exactly when people first learned to control fire, but experts estimate it was between 0.2 to 1.7 million years ago. Experts believe that early Homo sapiens in Africa were the first to use fire. Widespread use of fire dates back to around 125,000 years ago.

The Invention of Cooking

Fire and human evolution go hand-in-hand. It literally shaped us both mentally and physically. The introduction of cooked meat into our diet allowed our brains to grow large enough to develop higher intelligence some 1.8 million years ago.

In a recent Smithsonian article, Why Fire Makes Us Humanit’s been discovered that cooked food provided early human bodies with more calories and nutrients, which made us bigger. We grew in height by an astounding 50 percent! This newly-formed activity called cooking not only provided much-needed warmth and light, but it also provided a faster, easier way to eat meat. Before cooking, it once took hours (and lots of calories) to chew and swallow raw meat. Cooked meat was more tender and easier to chew, thus shrinking our jaws and teeth.

Yes, there are people currently on raw food diet trends that claim uncooked food is healthier or just as nutritious as cooked foods. The Smithsonian article approaches this theory by adding that not only have humans evolved to eat cooked food, but our bodies actually gain more nutrients when food is cooked.

“..for the same amount of calories ingested, the body gets roughly 30 percent more energy from cooked oat, wheat or potato starch as compared to raw, and as much as 78 percent from the protein in an egg. In Carmody’s experiments, animals given cooked food gain more weight than animals fed the same amount of raw food. And once they’ve been fed on cooked food, mice, at least, seemed to prefer it.”

Studies show that only a small amount of nutrients are absorbed by the small intestines through raw starch and protein. Once the remainder passes into the bowels, microbes eat most of the remaining supply. Cooked food, on the other hand, is mostly digested by the time it reaches the colon.

Evolution isn’t set in stone. It’s guided by a series of random events that continuously change evolution’s course. Human evolution may not have been possible if our brains had not recognized fire as a source of power and a valuable resource. So, the next time you’re building a fire at your campsite, revel in the fact that what you did took early humans hundreds of thousands of years to do.

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