It was the flicker that first caught our primate eyes, tuned as they were to detect motion. But it was the heat that lured us out of the trees. Here was power, safety, and comfort in one dazzling package. Some scholars believe we owe our evolution to it.
For millennia, our ancestors used fire for warmth and light, but when an experimental caveman pierced a chunk of meat with a stick and hung it over the flames—around 790,000 years ago, writes Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham in his book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human—it set our species on a new path: world domination.
Fire’s energy breaks down carbohydrates and proteins in foods, saving our guts the task, and diverting our energy to brain- and bodybuilding. Scholars connect early evidence of cooking with the rise of Homo erectus, a few evolutionary steps back from Homo sapiens. With the fortifying benefit of cooked food, he became bigger, stronger, and smarter, a precursor to modern humans.