Three small figures are crouched down near the fire, a pile of food next to them. A bunch of root veggies, some leaves, and a couple of shellfish. Carefully they’re roasting the food, catching as much liquid as they can in the shells.
More figures can be seen in the dim light cast by the fire, further away against the edge of the clearing. They seem to be on the lookout, sticks in hand to defend themselves from whatever may come out of the jungle. The light, smoke and sound of the fire and cooking attracts unwanted attention from the animals around. But many of these products can’t be eaten without cooking, or at least take a lot longer to digest and are far less tasty. The time preparing and waiting for the food is spent talking, telling stories and sharing the day.
When they finally sit down to eat the entire tribe shares what little they have. Those most valued and honoured might get the first pick, but everyone gets to eat from the shared stack of food. Even though the hunters have failed today and brought home nothing, tomorrow is another chance and maybe they will bring back a feast.
We don’t know for sure how the early human societies worked, but based on a lot of what we do know this is pretty much the picture I always create in my mind. A chosen family, trusting of each other sharing a meal and a story around the fire.
When people say controlled fire is the greatest “invention” humans have made they are spot on. But often not for the reasons they think fire is important. They usually go down the road of it allowing for all other progress in the form of melting metals. I think we really need to take a step back though.
Fire has shaped not only our biology but also our communities. Cooking on a fire is a dangerous thing to do. Not only for the fire itself, but also for all the attention a fire will attract. If you are not strong enough to defend your food a fire is a sure fire way to lose it. So we bonded together, the value of fire high enough to take those risks.
This story really has two parts. So let’s begin with biology.
Fire allows generally worthless foods to be valuable. Potatoes for example have little value (and can even make you sick) when uncooked. But when cooked they are a great source of energy. This is true for many of the staples in prehistoric times. When fruits became scarce for our last common ancestor, they came out of the trees to find new sources of food.
Later on fire allowed for far more foods to be added to that list of new food sources, so instead of dying from hunger we managed to negate the dangers of fire to survive (or at least did our best). The impact cooking had on the human body is a book on its own, but the short of it is that we wouldn’t be the humans we know today if it wasn’t for fire.
The other side is social. We needed to band together to negate the dangers of fire. Sitting in one place, with a bunch of food while making a massive signal of where you are. Dangers that would mean a single early human was almost sure to die from predators.
But the strength of the many managed to lower that danger significantly. Big predators would no longer take us out, the fire would be big enough for more than one and gathering the food together would also ensure we could share and balance out good and bad days between each other.
These two together form the basis of the cooking animal theory. We as humans may not be the strongest, toughest, smartest, or be the only ones to use tools. What really sets humans apart is their ability to cook.
Another theory I need to mention here is the “Drunken Ape” theory. This theory starts out by assuming a lot of what we do (but specifically farming) has started out with the biological wish to be drunk more often.
In the wild animals already manage to get drunk without cooking/food prep. Fruits that fall down from trees or bushes start fermenting naturally and get a low alcohol percentage. Chimpanzees are known to seek out these fruits when it is the season.
Cooking or better said food preparation allows humans to not depend on the seasons and be drunk year round. Every culture around the world seems to have found a way to make their own alcohol. Even to this day alcoholic drinks are central for social gatherings and rituals around the world.
Both theories share a simple truth: prepared food is central to our social interactions. We thrive and are shaped around cooking. Fire may be the greatest invention. But I dare to wager that cooking (on that fire) might be the next big thing.
Cooking might be thrown around as a tedious task, a chore very few people want to do, and in many cases a waste of time that many companies would love to help you with. Where eating has been reduced to either a basic need that simply just needs to be fulfilled, pretty much like breathing. Or it has become an indulgence where only the best is good enough.
But when we want to stay true to our primal being it is important to see cooking and eating for the rituals they are. Cooking is a primal connection, making it a ritual to bond over, a moment to socialize and a starting point to share your stories.
So next time when you’re cooking a meal for your loved ones, take a moment to think back to our early ancestors. Those that shaped our biology and society and maybe just maybe take some of their rituals and make them work for you.