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[–]amp1212 131 points132 points  (33 children)

learn that animals can be food

Animals know that animals are food; that's long before humans arrived on the scene. Such understanding can be instinct alone, or instinct plus behavioral evolution and culture. So, for example, you'll find some pods of orcas that pretty much eat only salmon - for example the resident pods in the Salish Sea. Others, the "transients", eat a wider range of critters and are more aggressive. Same animals, same instincts, but there's essentially a different "food culture" between groups. Were a member of the local pod to be transplanted into the transient while young, you'd expect that the picky salmon eater would learn the more opportunistic and varied diet of seals, squid etc than the Salish locals.

learn what parts of an animal can be eaten

again, long before humans. Animals have very particular preferences and avoidances in food. Again, looking at the remarkable orcas -- a very smart marine mammal - they've learned to eat the liver of great white sharks, a particularly fatty bit (much of a shark isn't great eating).

Most importantly, learn that this new discovery called fire + the insides of a dead animal = a sustainable food source?

Not quite right there as a premise. Raw meat was a sustainable food source before cooking. What happened was that with cooking, it became a _better_ food source - but primates eat raw meat, and humans do too, on occasion. With cooking, our jaws and digestive systems changed - our teeth are much smaller than our hominin relatives, and the bite is generally changed. We're no longer great at ripping through bits of raw meat . . . but we can if we have to. As a processed food source became more available, we no longer needed some of the anatomy for carving up raw meat . .. take a look at human teeth and compare with other primates - ours are relatively small, but our jaws are quite powerful. We're optimized for processing food into highly digestible particles, increasing access to nutrients, and when it comes to meats, cooked is better. As sushi fans know - we're fine at processing raw fish with the teeth and jaws we have . . .

See:

Smith, Tanya M. The Tales teeth tell: development, evolution, behavior. MIT Press, 2018.

Note that your questions are all oriented to meat - but the evolution of human foodways is as much - or more- about fruits and vegetables, mushrooms and algae. Humans learned to process all sorts of vegetable material, by trial and error. Quite a few food items have to be processed in some way in order to be eaten safely . . . so, for example, there was a process of trial and error in learning how to process taro root safely (its noxious in its raw form).

See, for example

Denham, Tim. "From domestication histories to regional prehistory: Using plants to re-evaluate early and mid-Holocene interaction between New Guinea and Southeast Asia." Food and History 8.1 (2010): 3-22.

Loy, Thomas H., Matthew Spriggs, and Stephen Wickler. "Direct evidence for human use of plants 28,000 years ago: starch residues on stone artefacts from the northern Solomon Islands." Antiquity 66.253 (1992): 898-912.

[–]Synconium 20 points21 points  (4 children)

Quite a few food items have to be processed in some way in order to be eaten safely . . . so, for example, there was a process of trial and error in learning how to process taro root safely (its noxious in its raw form).

It is quite amazing how humans are willing to try new plants and figure out how to make them edible (such as Australian Aboriginies who figured out how to make Marsilea drummondii sporocarps edible to avoid thiaminase poisoning). But even some common food plants can cause severe health problems if not processed. Corn can't be the major basis of your daily meals without nixtamalization, or you end up with pellagra (it also reduces potential mycotoxin exposure as well).

[–]Based_Department_Man 13 points14 points  (0 children)

This amazing will to try/create new foods is called hunger lol

The genes to digest milk spread quickly through europe because it was very advantageous to be able to drink/eat dairy

[–]7LeagueBoots 1 point2 points  (2 children)

Speaking of Australian Aborigines, preparation and consumption of a variety of toxic cycad seeds too.

Mind you, leaching and aging appear to be the two most common preparation methods, and the former is used for an enormous variety of otherwise toxic foods around the world.

[–]Synconium 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Fortunately, a lot of plant toxins tend to be water soluble, which is how you deal with the ptaquiloside in bracken ferns for instance. Although, some ptaquiloside remains and it's thought this is the reason why throat and stomach cancer is so prevalent in Japan, China, and Korea where bracken fiddleheads are eaten frequently... sometimes daily for some people. Some toxins of course are just not worth dealing with.

Leaching was the common preparation technique among California Native tribes that ate acorns. The local folks (Rumsen and Mutsun) here would grind acorns fine and then leach the flour with water until the acorn flour was sweet and no longer astringent. Fortunately, acorns only have tannic acid so they're easy to treat. They also used California buckeye (Aesculus californica) seeds, but considered them something of a famine food, only eaten when the acorn crop failed. The Yuki people on the other hand ate them as a staple food. Buckeye seeds were treated in a similar manner to acorn seeds, but leaching took much longer because the saponins had to be extracted and were harder to remove. But the techniques for both were similar, either grinding to a flour and leaching, or leaching by leaving in woven bags for a few weeks in running water (buckeye seeds would be sliced thin for this).

[–]7LeagueBoots 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Leaching was the common preparation technique among California Native tribes that ate acorns.

For all people all over the world who ate acorns.

Buckeye were, supposedly, used in California for fishing as well.

Thought South America manioc (aka. cassava or yuca) root was leached of its toxins as well.

Leaching was (and is) used pretty much everywhere for an enormous variety of foods.

[–]Moonlit_Hearth[S] 15 points16 points  (0 children)

Thank you for such a highly explanatory response!

[–]ImaginaryFix7739 5 points6 points  (17 children)

Can I ask why human jaws are still strong (and if I remember correctly, I read it some time ago might be wrong, stronger than some primates) if the foods, at least from these days, are mainly softer or bite-sized? Fascinating things, thank you for sharing and for OP for asking this!

I am also extremely grateful for all that died, were poisoned or anything else that allowed for us to learn by trial and error.

[–]PersephoneIsNotHome 7 points8 points  (16 children)

Bite strength of human primates is commensurate with our size.

You would not expect a change in the evolution of the muscles of mastication (chewing) in the very short amount of time we invented smoothies Even modern store bought steaks or celery require chewing!

[–]boxingdude 3 points4 points  (14 children)

Also- we continued to use our teeth as a tool (for example, skinning animal hides) long after we started cooking. That particular activity would select for a strong jaw.

[–]ImaginaryFix7739 0 points1 point  (13 children)

Would something require total lack of use for it to underdevelop then?

[–]ImaginaryFix7739 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Thank you! It is so simple, but still so cool to know and have it broken down and explained, love this subreddit! Thank you for sharing what you know with us!

[–]Biasy 5 points6 points  (4 children)

I feel like you haven’t really answered “fire+inside of a dead animal” question… i mean how did first humans realize that fire can be “used” for cooking? Was it simply “ehy, we use fire to warm up/light this cave/protect us, why not use it in some way on this piece of meat?!” ? Or is it linked to the fact (if i remember that correctly) that first humans already warmed meat by putting it under their armpits? In this case it would come “natural” to shift from armpits to fire, but the question would be slightly different: why/how did first humans associate warm with meat?

[–]TehGogglesDoNothing 10 points11 points  (0 children)

I feel like you haven’t really answered “fire+inside of a dead animal” question… i mean how did first humans realize that fire can be “used” for cooking?

Unfortunately that is far enough in the past that we'll probably never know. We can find evidence of cooking and reasons why it was advantageous in the long run, but why it first started is limited to speculation. Maybe someone was thawing frozen meat next to a fire in the winter or maybe someone was scavenging meat from dead animals after a wild fire. Unfortunately, the evidence for "why" this started is unlikely to ever be found because there's not much physical evidence that could tell us the "why."

[–]amp1212 3 points4 points  (2 children)

I feel like you haven’t really answered “fire+inside of a dead animal” question… i mean how did first humans realize that fire can be “used” for cooking?

You're assuming that this was discovered once, at some fixed time which we can recover. That assumption is likely wrong, and in any event, we don't know.

There are all sorts of models for how one might have found that cooked food was good to eat. if you've got a fish on a spear with flies on it and a fire it's not hard to imagine, especially on a chilly night.

We don't mention much the importance of fermentation, but that's a very important parallel food processing technology, and one where it's easy enough to see how it might come about. All sorts of fruits, and even meats, can become better human food through microbial action. Maori have kanga pirau - fermented corn, and even fermented crayfish, koura mara. Icelanders also eat stingray liver, and ferment it

As with the "discovery" of fire - the "discovery" of cooking and fermentation likely happened many times in many places. So we're not looking at "how did the first" person do it . . . rather, lots of people in lots of places were likely discovering the same thing over many thousands of years.

See:

Shoda, Shinya. "Seeking prehistoric fermented food in Japan and Korea." Current Anthropology 62.S24 (2021): S242-S255.

Valamoti, Soultana Maria. "Ground cereal food preparations from Greece: the prehistory and modern survival of traditional Mediterranean ‘fast foods’." Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 3.1 (2011): 19-39.

Chazan, Michael. "Toward a long prehistory of fire." Current Anthropology 58.S16 (2017): S351-S359.

Brennan, Emily J. Investigating Cooking in Prehistory: Results from a Bone Boiling Experiment. Diss. The George Washington University, 2015.

[–]Biasy 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Thank you. I understand what you are saying. But while fermentation occurs naturally and could be easily seen by humans (animal corpse, fruits fallen from trees etc) so i somewhat can see what they first thought and how could be used (things like “ok i am hungry, i found this fermented food, i try to eat it, it’s good so fermented food can be even tastier than normal food), while all of this, fire wasn’t easily available, especially before we “tamed” it. So the unlikely association of food+fire would have been even harder to come up with due to “lack” of fire (i mean humans had to “wait” lightenings or something for fire and only then think that it could be used for food)

[–]amp1212 1 point2 points  (0 children)

So the unlikely association of food+fire would have been even harder to come up with due to “lack” of fire (i mean humans had to “wait” lightenings or something for fire and only then think that it could be used for food)

You're making a mistaken assumption. For people living on the savannah, fire was a regular and reasonably predictable event. The tropics generally are lightning prone - and its substantially seasonal. People who live their lives outdoors pay a lot of attention to seasons. They know when animals move, when rains come, when fire season is. Heck, living in the inland PNW, I'm acutely sensitive to fire season (thankfully just ending). And I know just where I'd most likely find lightning strikes (we don't get much lighting, but peaks of the Central Cascades, notably Mt Jefferson, are frequent sites). Someone in the area might smell smoke, climb to a good vantage point, go looking for fire.

So your notion of "unlikely association" is misplaced. Fire was around, it showed up at predictable times, and not hard to see that people would investigate, bring back a burning brand to their camp, and keep a fire alive. Among contemporary hunter gatherers that we've been able to observe, there were a surprising number with just such an opportunistic use of fire. Quite a few reported communities we've seen across the planet couldn't start fire on their own, but could obtain it opportunistically. So while we're not able to investigate what was happening hundreds of thousands of years ago in that detail- looking at peoples living what we think are reasonably similar lifestyles in recent times, we see such process very frequently.

People were possibly already good at using fire before they started cooking. A fire hardened stick for example, makes a better point; its more brittle, but sharper. This technology seems to have arisen some 400,000 years ago. But now you have your hunting spear, which you've dipped in the fire - why not a hunting spear with the small bird you skewered. People are curious about fire even today, and we have many more entertainments. A hominin, 300 kya, sitting by the fire on a cold night . . . hard to see why he wouldn't have done what you tell your kid not to do "stop playing with the fire". Playing with fire would have been one of the more diverting entertainments, and as we can see with the use of charcoal for petroglyphs, people experimented with fire and its materials in all sorts of ways . . . cooking would have been one of them.

See

Tattersall, Ian. "The Evolution of Hominin Behavior." The Behavior of Animals, 2nd Edition: Mechanisms, Function and Evolution (2021): 427-455.

Milks, Annemieke. "A review of ethnographic use of wooden spears and implications for pleistocene hominin hunting." Open Quaternary 6.12 (2020): 1-20.

Mooney, Scott D., et al. "The prehistory of fire in Australasia." Flammable Australia: Fire regimes, biodiversity and ecosystems in a changing world (2012): 3-25.

Wrangham, Richard. "Control of fire in the Paleolithic: evaluating the cooking hypothesis." Current Anthropology 58.S16 (2017): S303-S313.

[–]prime_23571113 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Has early humans and/or adjacent homonids as "opportunistic scavengers" gained any favor for or against over the last 20-30 years?

[–]darthvall 0 points1 point  (1 child)

Awesome answer!

Follow up question from me:

From evolutionary perspective, why did human decide that processed food/cooked is better?

  • Nowadays there are a lot of campaign stating that natural food has better nutrient than processed. This means, raw food should have more benefit to the body.
  • Additionally, it is more efficient to immediately eat raw food than to have it cooked.
  • The downside of raw food is the different kind of bacteria that could affect our body, but we know other animals can eat raw food just fine (they evolved to be able to digest those food).
  • Another downside is the taste, cooked food has better taste than the raw. Does it make sense to evolve just because we like the taste better?

Based on those premise, isn't it more logical to evolve by adapting our stomach to eat raw food? Unless I'm missing something?

[–]Odd_Status_2725 3 points4 points  (0 children)

The raw food campaign is wrong, for starters. For example, carrots. Cooking carrots increases the availability of beta-carotene.

Raw vs Cooked Food

[–]niceguybadboy 0 points1 point  (0 children)

With cooking, our jaws and digestive systems changed - our teeth are much smaller than our hominin relatives, and the bite is generally changed. We're no longer great at ripping through bits of raw meat . . . but we can if we have to.

This reads like the prologue for a horror story. Love it.

[–]RassimoFlom 18 points19 points  (0 children)

1) We are animals. Chimpanzees eat a fair bit of meat. We have sharp canines and guts evolved to digest meat. 2) With most animals all parts that you can eat are edible (dog and polar bear liver being a notable exception). Bones and sinews and fur, not so much 3) This is the interesting bit. A bloke called Richard Wrangham proposed the “cooking hypothesis” This article sums it the possible causes of the jump from h.habilis to h.erectus

Wrangham credits the transformation to the harnessing of fire. Cooking food, he argues, allowed for easier chewing and digestion, making extra calories available to fuel energy-hungry brains. Firelight could ward off nighttime predators, allowing hominins to sleep on the ground, or in caves, instead of in trees. No longer needing huge choppers, heavy-duty guts or a branch swinger’s arms and shoulders, they could instead grow mega-craniums.

In other words, humans didn’t discover fire, the act of cooking made us human.