Friday, July 10, 2009

"Catching Fire"-- Book Review

In his provocative new book, Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University suggests that early hominid evolution owes as much to the idea of “Man the Cook” as it does to the notion of Man the Hunter. The Man the Hunter hypothesis, currently favored among many anthropologists as one of the main drivers for early hominid development, holds that this development came about due to an increase in meat eating by the australopethicines, leading eventually to the evolution of Homo habilis.

Wrangham suggests that it was not simply meat eating, but the addition of cooked food of all sorts to the diet which led to the subsequent evolutionary leap from the habilines to Homo Erectus and anatomically modern humans. He provides a wealth of information on the ways in which cooking led to anatomical changes such as increased brain size, a decrease in the size of the teeth and gut, and an increase in efficiency of digestion. Increased nutritional value obtained from cooked food, both meat and vegetable, led to further evolutionary changes. In addition, time which was, as Wrangham makes clear, once used to obtain, chew and digest raw foods could now be spent on other things such as hunting and socialization.

Supplemented by a large and highly detailed end notes section and an extensive bibliography, this readable and informative new book is sure to be of interest to anyone following new developments in the study of hominid evolution.

-Clare Heberg

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