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photograph RICHARD WRANGHAM, Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, and Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Human anatomy, physiology, behaviour and society have all been strongly shaped by the need for cooked food – a relationship that goes back to our distant past.

Date: 11th November 2009

Time: 17:30

Venue: Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building (opposite Haymarket Metro)


Although Darwin considered the control of fire “probably the greatest , excepting language, ever made by man,” he implied that the use of fire was a purely cultural achievement and he did not explain what made it important. I propose that humans are biologically adapted to the control of fire, because it enables the cooking of food, which leads to large amounts of energy. Evidence of compromised physiological performance among individuals on raw diets supports the hypothesis. Mechanisms contributing to net energy gain from cooked foods include increased digestibility of starch and protein, and reduced costs of digestion eating cooked versus raw meat. Humans differ from other great apes by having reduced digestive systems, modified as a consequence of the availability of processed food. Contemporary evidence indicates that humans are not adapted to raw diets, while fossil evidence suggests that humans have been cooking since Homo erectus. Darwin underestimated the impact of the control of fire, since it now appears responsible for the origin of Homo erectus

Richard Wrangham is Harvard College Professor and Ruth Moore Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University where he has worked since 1989.  His major interests are chimpanzee behavioural ecology, the evolution of violence, the influence of diet on human evolution, and the conservation of chimpanzees and other apes. He has studied chimpanzees in Uganda since 1987 as director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project (now co-Director with Martin Muller).  He received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Cambridge University in 1975, and was a Research Fellow at King’s College (Cambridge) from 1977 to 1980.  In 1981 he joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).  He has authored ~200 publications, including (with Dale Peterson) Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence and Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Profile Books, September 2009). He has been Co-Chair, with Professor Toshisada Nishida, of the Great Ape World Heritage Species Project, President (2004-2008) of the International Primatological Society, and Patron of the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP).