The rich flavor of barbequed meat is no doubt the reason most of us are into grilling. But the glorified pitmasters were not the originators of what has become America's favorite pastime. The art of cooking meat over a live fire was started about 1.8 million years ago by human ancestors, the Homo erectus. They only had live fire as a cooking method.
How Human Ancestors Ate Meat Before Fire
Early evidence of controlled use of fire dates back to almost two million years ago. Before that, they ate meat raw like most animals. Although we still eat raw meat today, like fish in sushi, it's not because we don't have a fire. One of the significant evolutionary changes in the human diet began with the incorporation of meat and marrow.
One of the advantages early humans had over the other species was the use of tools. They used tools to break animal bones to get to the calorie-rich marrow. That was the most dramatic shift that happened to their diet. It led to many changes in the early man that revolutionized them into what we are now.
Fast forward to today, where many people are learning how to grill bone marrow. Most of them do it without even knowing how or when the act of eating marrow began. According to the late Adrian Anthony Gill, eating meat is one of the most important things that ever happened to us as a species.
There is a lot of archaeological evidence that supports his statement. But that is not the end of it; there is still plenty to uncover about eating meat and human evolution.
Was Barbecuing the Driving Force Behind Human Evolution?
Homo erectus were practically the first pitmasters. As I had already mentioned in the introduction paragraph, they started the art of cooking meat over live fire. However you choose to look at it, no one can dispute the similarities of what we do today and what the Home Erectus did.
Cooked meat is attributed to a lot of developments in the early man, including brain development. Arguing against the contribution of eating meat to human evolution is very difficult with such theories in place.
Before the Homo erectus, meat-eating was already a dietary feature. Their predecessors couldn't cook their meat. As much as the chimpanzees ate raw meat, their intestinal organs and jaws couldn't process and chew raw meat properly. They had to devote a lot of their time and energy to chewing and digestion.
Chimpanzees have the cognitive abilities needed to cook; the only issue is they can’t control fire. That is why they were doomed to eating raw meat. They are our closest relatives in terms of evolution. But because they never learned how to use fire, they still can’t cook in the wild.
However, there are ways raw meat was made more digestible. Tenderizing is one of the techniques Homo habilis used. Clearly, the tenderizing meat technique we use today started a long time ago. But even with the advancements, cooked meat remained the easiest for humans to digest. That is why the tenderizing technique is not regarded as a significant evolutionary step.
The ability to barbecue is what most people see as a pivotal point in human evolution. Homo Erectus' ability to master the control of fire with the aim of cooking changed the game completely. Suddenly meat was easy to digest, and all the benefits associated with it started showing.
Reasons Behind the Barbecue and Evolution Theory
The major shift to cooked food, especially meat, in the early man diet was a decisive point in history. Barbecued meat is softer; the Homo erectus managed to eat it with weaker jaws and small teeth. If we decide today to eat more like the chimpanzees or any other primates, none of us will survive.
The evolution championed by the early man made us how we are today, and it all started with the art of barbecuing. Here are some of the reasons to back the claims up.
1. More Easy-To-Obtain Calories
Cooked meat provides easy-to-obtain calories, and it was also easy to digest. Aside from the calories the Homo erectus obtained to live healthily; they also developed smaller jaws and teeth. Compared to the others who came before them, their jaws and teeth were much smaller, and it's all attributed to cooking meat.
2. Increased Energy
Remember when we said earlier that apes used a lot of energy chewing and digesting. Well, that was no longer a problem when meat cooking began. The Homo erectus spent minimal energy processing cooked meat.
As evolution progressed, we could obtain the energy we need from a small amount of food. The risk of starvation and malnutrition was reduced dramatically. The nutritional value of meat is high; that is why it was a game-changer.
Also, the early men who could get more calories from their food were in a better position to reproduce. That means they would pass down their superior genes, which kept evolving until they stopped at us.
3. Bigger Brains
The other reason most people support the barbecue and evolution theory is the growth of bigger brains. Before the Homo erectus, the Homo habilis had a brain capacity of 37 cubic inches. After the mastery of cooking over live fire, the Homo erectus brain capacity increased to 53 cubic inches. From there, it developed to our current brain capacity.
However, the bigger brains led to an increased energy bill. So the early Homo sapiens who came after the Homo erectus would not have made their energy demands without cooking. They had to digest food timely and effectively to support the big brains. That was only possible because they could eat cooked meat.
So as you can see, the ability to barbecue was very impactful. It led to smaller jaws, teeth, guts, and bigger brains, which defines the modern man. It shaped the way we are today, especially the physical traits.
Barbecuing and the Impact on Cultural and Social Evolution
Yes, you read that right. Barbecuing had a lot of benefits that extend far beyond the physical traits. Cooking, especially grilling today, is considered a social activity. It has become a summer ritual in many American homes. It helps establish and solidify human relationships. Aside from the physical characteristics, the social and cultural traits are what separate us from other primates.
Collecting, preparing and cooking meat has helped the evolution of human behaviors. The collection of meat was not a one-man job. They relied on carrion, which can be found by chance. But hunting was also part of the collection. Hunting forced the early man to cooperate with others and develop useful social skills.
Hunting at that time needed teamwork, tracking skills and accuracy. But despite all these, you can always come back empty-handed. Today, most people say barbecue is for sharing. That is exactly the same philosophy the early man lived with.
If one group came back empty-handed, they would feel more at ease knowing the next hunting party will walk in with something. The meat that comes in will be shared among the wider group. As much as the sharing was a survival technique, it helped build their social norms.
But when you come to think about it, the sharing doesn’t just happen. There has to be an understanding between the members of the group and moral standards. Without the moral standards, nothing would have stopped the hunting party from starting a fire and enjoying a barbecue on their own.
The networks that were formed through hunting accelerated human evolution. You can't go hunting unless you can cook what you hunt. The fact that Homo erectus was able to control fire motivated them to form such hunting groups. Hunting provides a reliable meat source.
Barbecuing also means the Homo erectus was also able to provide light. That means they were able to cook meat and eat even when it was dark. The extra time they had to cook and eat was very helpful in their evolution. Most animals did not have the same advantage.
If they were used to no meals after dark, this presented endless possibilities. Hunting also took the early man to the top of the food chain. Meaning their security suddenly became a concern. Lucky for them, the fire was protection against predators.
Another social and cultural impact of cooking was the structured meal patterns. You were born and found that mealtimes in your home were a social affair. Without question, you passed the same norms to your kids, and the cycle continues. Well, these types of behaviors started with the early pitmasters.
As much as barbecuing was significant in human cultural evolution, it had side effects. Incomplete combustion of wood generates harmful compounds called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs). But we have evolved and we are now more resilient to the harmful effects of cooking over a wood fire.
What the First Barbecue Looked and Tasted Like
To be honest, none of us can say for sure what the first barbecued meat smelled, looked and tasted like. But we assume it’s similar to what we are experiencing today. One thing is for sure, no matter how the meat tasted, it is one of the biggest evolutionary steps. The ability to cook presented us with many physical, social and cultural traits we have today.
Let’s go back to Adrian Anthony Gill. He contested the famous saying, 'it was a brave man who first ate an oyster.' According to him, the brave man was the one who ate a burnt animal for the first time. He believed that changed everything because the early men could feed old people and young ones without teeth. This is true because cooked meat is more tender.
The much we know about how the first barbecue meat tasted is based on your present experiences. Bear in mind that the Homo erectus developed smaller jaws and teeth, meaning the cooked meat was easier to chew. That is why we can assume it was soft and tender like the meat we grill today. Without a time machine, giving accurate details about the taste is difficult.
What I am trying to say in a few words is we can pin our humanity on pitmasters. Barbecuing was responsible for the major evolutionary changes that transformed apes into humans. They started cooperating and living with social standards.
Their physical traits also evolved as a result of cooking meat. They went from big jaws and teeth used for eating raw meat to small ones similar to what we have today. People who have been looking for the missing link in humanity for years need to consider the first pitmasters. They show how we evolved to what we are today through cooking.
The history of barbecuing dates millions of years ago. It has transformed into what we see today in most summer celebrations and get-togethers. With the help of modern technology, humanity has transformed the art of cooking over a wood fire. Cooking, especially meat, was the secret to our evolution. The early man cooked his way to bigger brains and more developed traits.