An unexpected theory is emerging that may answer one of the great mysteries of our evolution: what caused the change from ape to man?
Has our diet and cooking techniques made us who we are today?
The ability to cook is unique to humans – somethingmost of us take for granted. But now some scientistsbelieve that instead of cooking being a mere by-productof evolved man, it could have fundamentally shapedour physical and mental abilities. In this programme,Horizon challenges our relationship with food,attempting to unravel the paradox: do we cook becausewe are human, or did cooking make us the humans weare today?
Horizon visits caves in South Africa wherearchaeologists have made compelling discoveriesunderpinning the importance of food in our evolution.Early skeletons, tools and charred bones have all begunto determine the timescale when early man started tohunt – and even tame fire.
Horizon also meets Professor Peter Ungar at theUniversity of Arkansas. He is studying how our teethand jaws have evolved over the last four million years:from the large molars of vegetarian australopithecus,to the sharp incisors used for consuming raw meat ofhomo habbilis, to our smaller jaws once we started toeat cooked food.
Elsewhere paleoanthropologist Peter Wheeler, basedin Liverpool, has mapped how our digestive systemshrunk due to the changes in our diet. Most significantly,he believes that our ancestors were able to use theenergy saved from eating cooked food to build a biggerbrain.
Horizon joins Professor Travis Pickering on a huntingtrip with a tribe in northern Namibia. Since the huntergatherers are untouched by modern life, he hopes tobe able to piece together what happened thousands oreven millions of years ago.
And research into the chemistry of food supports thebenefits of cooking for our very survival. Professor AlexWestby at the National Resources Centre in Londondemonstrates how cooking renders many toxic foodssafe to eat.
But could these evolutionary changes, which allowedus to be the big brained, small gutted humans we aretoday, also hold the seeds of our downfall? Could theyexplain why humans are prone to getting fat?
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