Book Review: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham

The fact that we humans are different from our ape cousins is self evident. We have bigger brains, walk upright and we make and use tools. But ever since the publication in 1871 of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man the question was and is how we got to be so different.

Richard Wrangahm offers us a good, new answer to that question in his book: Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The answer is simply that we cook our food. Wrangham is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University and also the Curator of Primate Behavioral Biology for Peabody Museum, so he knows of what he speaks.

Written in clear, accessible prose the book draws on diverse scientific disciplines such as Wrangham’s own studies of ape behavior, paleontology, biology, chemistry, sociology, physics, and nutritional science as well as studies of hunter-gathers to draw the conclusion that cooking “made” humans, well, human.

Wrangham knowledgably speculates that about 1.8 million years ago our ancestors brought fire under control, turning it from a fearful destroyer to a tame helper and then cooking was invented. According to Wrangham, it was this ability to cook that drove the development of the first “true” humans, homo erectus. Cooking started to drive evolution. The ability to cook and eat cooked food gave a huge advantage to our forbearers. It made food easier to chew and digest and therefore less body energy was required for these activities allowing more investment into hunting and gathering. Further homo erectus’ body started to change; teeth and jaws became smaller, as did the digestive tract and more calories started to go to the burgeoning brain.

Cooking also drove social changes. Cooking created the pair-bond and specialized sex-roles. Wrangham makes the point that monogamy developed as a deal in which men would provide and protect the food source, while women cooked it. In short men hunted and defended the food, while women prepared it. This wandering into evolutionary psychology is Wrangham’s weakest argument, but he doesn’t put too much reliance on it.

Finding new, interesting and sweeping ideas in the field of evolutionary science are rare. Even rarer is a clear, concise and truly fascinating treatise on these any of these big new ideas. Wrangham has written just such a book with Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.


Book Review: The Attack on Troy by Rodney Castleden

The Attack on Troy by Rodney Castleden endeavors to give a “true” account of the Trojan War. Some 3500 years ago, Agamemnon, high king of Mycenae and Hegamon of the Greeks lead the combined might of the Greek city-states in a war against the city of Troy which was near the Bosporus in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). This conflict gave rise to two of the first and greatest works in Western literature; The Iliad and The Odyssey. In this work, Castleden reviews and reconsiders all the available evidence to ascertain the historical truth of the Trojan War.

Castleden does not shy away from departing from The Iliad when its account of the conflict is evidently unlikely. But even then, Castleden still explains how the fantastical elements in Homer match with the facts. For example, the open actions of the Olympian gods cannot be more than fiction, however, without a doubt the warriors on both sides of the conflict prayed to those gods, and even thought that the gods were on their side, or against them, and acted according to that belief.

Further, Castleden explains that the Trojan Horse as it is described in The Iliad is nothing more than a bit of poetic license on the part of Homer. However, there still is a seed of truth in the story; that is to say, that large siege engines, particularly siege towers were in use throughout the Near East and Mediterranean world at this time. These siege towers were basically mobile platforms that would be wheeled into place against the besieged city’s walls and a ramp lowered to disgorge soldiers to attack the walls. With the ramps lowered these towers resembled a horse’s head. Thus a possible true explanation of the Trojan Horse.

Castlesden investigates even the minor details, such as where the Mycenaeans and their allies, actually landed, beached their ships and built their camp. Castlesden’s examination of the literature is through. He also uses the current available archeological evidence to create a plausible history of the war. Further he examines the battle tactics and the equipment used by both sides.

The book is well written. The prose is clear and jargon-less. Castleden sensibly proposes two likely explanations how well the Iliad matches with history: a minimalist view, which sees the smallest possible connection between the fact of the war and the fiction of Homer. He also gives the maximalist outlook, which is that Homer was basically writing history when he composed The Iliad.

Overall, the book is accessible to any and all readers that are interested in the subject of the Trojan War and ancient history.

Book Review: Archaeology Theories Methods and Practice by Colin Renfrew and Paul G. Bahn

Archaeology Theories, Methods and Practice (5th edition) by Colin Renfrew and Paul G. Bahn is the basic and indispensable text book for undergraduate archaeology students. In this new 5th Edition, many new theoretical advances, such as agency and materiality theories, have been added, while older approaches have been re-looked. Field procedures have been updated. Renfrew and Bahn had emphasized global climate change and its effect on human behavior patterns. This latest edition also includes new information on subjects as diverse as Otzi the Iceman and llama domestication. New topics are introduced as modern archaeology advances through the use of advanced technology such as satellite survey techniques, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the use of Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). The 5th edition also has a companion web site and study guide for the text.

The text book covers the required practical skills of the field archaeologist. It also has a large section on the history of archaeology and includes a number of somewhat detailed case studies. However, as it covers such a wide range of topics in such a vast and varied field as archaeology, it can be nothing more than a rather brief and very general reference book. The serious student of archaeology will need to seek out other, more in-depth, reference books as they “dig into” the field more deeply and especially as they begin to specialize further.

However, unlike a number of other introductory text or reference books, Archaeology Theories, Methods and Practice is very readable for the new student to the field. This is likely the reason that it is usually recommended for the undergraduate archaeology student. The text is nicely arranged; it is well indexed, which makes it easy to find specific references. Which is not to say that the book is jargon-free, because it is most certainly has plenty in it. In fact, the prose is liberal in its use of the archaeologists’ lingo, but at least Renfrew and Bahn have tried to explain the unfamiliar terms and concepts. Unlike other writers of text books, the two authors have not just assumed that the reader is already aware of the language.

To sum up, Archaeology Theories, Methods and Practice (5th edition) is an immense and insightful text book about the field of archaeology. While there is some jargon, the jargon is explained. And for the serious student of archaeology the text book is not only a must-read, but also a must-keep. The book will certainly be used as a continuing and very useful reference to the field.

Beer and Civilization

Civilization was built on bread and beer. For years it was thought that bread was the primary reason for Neolithic humans settling down and growing grain.[1]  But in the 1950’s another idea was brought to the front: that brewing was the driving force for developing grain cultivation and a settled lifestyle.  Of course, there is no archeological evidence for which came first, since both baking and brewing were discovered well before writing was invented.[2]  Also, as one paleontologist and amateur brewer has said: “. . .  the argument over the primacy of bread versus beer is as academic as that of the chicken vs. egg.” [3]

In any case, both products rely on the same raw materials; grain, yeast and water. Harvest the grain, either wild or domestic, grind or mash the seeds and add water to make gruel.  This gruel is edible as is while the raw grain is not.  Bake a thick gruel near a fire or even on a sun-heated stone and it produces a rough kind of unleavened bread.  Naturally occurring, wild yeast could and did enter the mix at some point causing the bread to rise as it baked, creating leavened bread.  On the other hand, make the mix thin, leave it sitting around for a couple of days in the open, again with an accidental addition of naturally occurring yeast and a kind of very rough beer is brewed.[4]  Beer and bread also have similar nutritional values; both are rich in carbohydrates and vitamins.[5]

In short, beer is liquid bread and bread is solid beer.[6]

Both foods had advantages and disadvantages as a source of nutrition. Beer was easier to prepare than bread. Grain for bread required finer grinding, kneading and a relatively large and consistent source of heat.  Whereas beer needed only roughly ground grain, water, a holding receptacle and time.[7]  However, beer was not as easily stored or carried as bread.[8]

By 9500 BCE wild grains were being harvested with real agriculture following about 7000 BCE.[9]  Both baking and brewing require a sedentary lifestyle.  Brewers and bakers must be close to the sources of grain, and have some kind of facilities to process the grain, bake the bread or brew the beer and then store and guard them.[10]  Humanity was now well on the way to civilization with permanent settlements and a stable food supply with some surplus for non-farming specialists.

There are several life advantages of a settled, agricultural lifestyle over the nomadic life of hunter-gathers: a rising birthrate, much lower child mortality and by storing food, some protections from the vagaries of nature. All of which lead to a massive increase in population of farmers.[11]  However, there are some scientists that assert that agriculture was a horrible mistake for humankind and early farmers were far less healthy then hunter-gathers.  Also, farming caused a number of other human ills, such as the spread of disease, despotism and inequality.[12]  However, if the ‘mistake hypotheses’ is clearly in error because agriculture ‘conquered’ world, while hunter-gathers societies were pushed into remote and marginal areas and failed to develop materially.

In any case, because of farming, the population increased, society became more complex and maintaining the all-important food supply and surplus grew very difficult for the imperfect human memory. Writing was invented to track the logistics of food, who contributed what, how much was available, who was receiving supplies.[13]  Tracking the products of society was so important that it seems that at least one complete language, Linear B, was invented or adapted by the Minoans to do nothing but record lists of supplies.  There seems to be no writing of literary merit in Linear B script, only lists of names, records of livestock and grain; in other words, only the dry language of bureaucracy.[14]

However, the Sumerians soon turned writing from a barebones bureaucratic exercise to rich artistic use, producing the world’s oldest written epic: The Epic of Gilgamesh. In this narrative the ancients recognized the civilizing affect of beer by reporting its effect on Enkidu, the wild man.  A holy priestess/prostitute, Shamhat, is sent to tame Enkidu. After spending the night with Enkidu, Shamhat takes him to some shepherds and says to him:

“Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.

Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.

Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,

he drank the beer-seven jugs!”


After eating and more importantly, drinking his fill, Enkidu took a bath, dressed in clothes, took up weapons, hunted wild animals and guarded the flocks of the shepherds.[15]

The connections between beer and civilization in this episode are manifest.  First, drinking beer was a social activity, unlike the sharing of other foods.  In drinking together, all imbibers share equally from the jar.[16]  Enkidu is introduced to human society, by the shepherds, through the shared drinking of beer.

The second connection is indirect.  Beer was a gift from the gods and also the most widespread alcoholic drink in the ancient world. [17]  As William James said:  “The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes.”[18]    Clearly, drinking alcohol was both social and religious, not only bringing the drinker in closer contact with his fellow imbibers, but also closer to the gods.  In short, by drinking beer Enkidu undergoes a religious experience as well as a socializing experience.

The last connection involves women and their role in civilization. Indicative of women’s role in baking and brewing; that is in providing “bread and beer”[19], the very basics of life, is that the patron divinities of beer were goddesses.[20]  After all, as one unknown author has said: “The stomach is the center and origin of civilization.”[21] Women took care of the stomach of their family in the household and the ‘stomach’ of the whole civilized society through baking bread and brewing beer.  In fact, the Great Pyramids of Giza, perhaps the greatest expression of ancient Egyptian civilization, were built on a by workmen, living on a diet primarily of bread and beer.[22]

Of course, the influence of beer on civilization didn’t end with the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.  It seems that brewing was independently discovered in all the other major world civilizations.  The Incas, Aztecs and Chinese all had beers made from the locally available grains and all these societies thought beer was a gift from heaven.[23]  Other areas of the worlds and other cultures also developed important fermented foods, without necessarily developing civilization.[24]

In later centuries, beer dominated non-grape growing areas.  Beer was often looked down on as a poor man’s drink, especially by the wining-drinking Southern Europeans.  However, when the brew was tried, many people became enthusiastic quaffers.  Beer drinkers not only praised the drink as a refreshing beverage, but also as a medicine.[25]  Brewing even affected settlement of the New World, with the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth specifically because they were out of supplies; especially beer.[26]

More recently, everywhere Westerners immigrated or colonized; breweries sprang up like mushroom after a rainstorm. For examples, the oldest extant brewery in America, Yuengling, was founded in 1829 by German immigrant. The Tsingtao Brewery of China was founded by Germans in 1903. Mexican beers have also been influenced by European immigrants.[27] Moreover, beer continues to be an important product in the 21st Century, with worldwide beer consumption in 2004 of 150 GigaLiters.[28]

In conclusion, it can be asserted that beer was and is an essential foodstuff and social lubricate, but also, along with bread, jumpstarted human civilization and for good or ill, supported the spread of Western culture throughout the world.

[1] J.M.J DeWet, “Grasses and the Culture History of Man”, Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 68, No. 1 (1981), at

[2] Robert J. Braidwood, Jonathan D. Sauer, et al, “Did Man Once Live by Beer Alone?” American Anthropologist, 55:4 (Oct., 1953), at


[3] Ed Hitchcock, “Kitchen Anthropology: Home Brewing an Ancient Beer,”

[4] Reay Tannahill, Food in History, (New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1988), 48-52

[5]  Andrew Webber, “Beer or Bread: Was Beer the First Great Cereal Food?” Archeology and the Bible Project, (Rice University EducationWeb, April 12, 1995) at http://www.owlnet. ~reli205/andrew_beer/beer.html

[6] Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, (New York: Walker and Co., 2005), 17.

[7] Webber, “Beer or Bread: Was Beer the First Great Cereal Food?”

[8] Standage, 6 Glasses, 21.

[9] J. M. Roberts, A Short History of the World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 23

[10] Standage, 6 glasses, 13.

[11] Jeffery Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2009), 60-61

[12] Jared Diamond, “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race”, Discover Magazine, (May 1987), at

[13] Standage, 6 glasses, 23.

[14] P. E. Easterling, ed., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature: Volume 1, Greek Literature, Part 4, The Hellenistic Period and the Empire, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 154.

[15] The Epic of Gilgamesh, Table I and II, mesopotamian/gilgamesh/

[16] Standage, 6 glasses, 18.

[17] Ibid, 19.

[18] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience; A Study in Human Nature, 32nd ed. (New York, NY: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920), 387

[19] Standage, 6 glasses, 37

13 Hymn to Ninkasi: translation,

14 Food Reference, Culinary Quotes Section, qcivilization.html.

[22] Standage, 6 Glasses, 37

[23] Ibid, 19

[24] Webber, “Beer or Bread”.

[25] Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1992), 239-240

[26]  Ken Wells , Travels with Barley: A journey through Beer Culture in America, (New York: Wall Street Journal Books, 2004),  73

[27] Yuengling Brewing Company, History of Yuengling Brewing Company history.htm. Tsingtao Beer Company, History of Tsingtao Brewing Company,  A Brief History of Mexican Beer,

[28] Volume of World Beer Consumption, JohnnyAlicea.shtml.

The Fate of the Neanderthals

Very recently there has been some very exciting news about the fate of the Neanderthals. Seems about 4% of the Human Genome is made up of Neanderthal genes. This means that in the past, modern Humans, also called Homo sapiens, or sometimes Cro-Magnons, interbreed with Neanderthals and produced fertile offspring. Since different species generally may breed, but not produce fertile offspring, this means that Neanderthals should now not be consider a separate species at all.

However, this interbreeding does not explain what happened to the Neanderthals as a group. The Neanderthals, as a sub-species, went extinct about 30,000 years ago after having thrived some 300 hundred thousand years in Europe. There are many ideas, often called the Neanderthal extinction hypotheses, which try and answer that very question. Early Modern Humans moved out of Africa and entered the Neanderthal’s range about 80 to 90 thousand years ago. The two species co-existed for some 50,000 years before the Neanderthals finally disappeared completely.

Even before the recent discovery interbreeding had been one of the hypotheses; many scientists thought that Neanderthals were a sub-species of humans and that they could have interbred with modern humans. This is now apparently proved true.

But interbreeding is not the only theory as to the ultimate fate of the Neanderthals.

The Rapid Extinction theory states that the relatively short duration of overlap between the two human sub-species supports a “rapid extinction” scenario. Biologist and writer Jared Diamond puts forward the idea of clash between the two species that the Neanderthals ultimately lost. Diamond also hypothesizes that a disease could have transferred from Modern Humans to Neanderthals and the Neanderthals succumbed because they had no natural immunity to this new infection.

Another the next theory is that Modern Humans had some kind competitive advantage over Neanderthals when it came to hunting and reproduction, such as a clear division of labor between men and women. Some studies show that Modern Humans had better weapons with which to hunt. Seems the Cro-Magnons had enhanced hunting ability and were better fed. One study shows that if Homo sapiens had just one more child per couple that survived to reproduce that that alone would overwhelm the Neanderthal population.

In 2009 an anthropologist announced that it that at least in one case a Neanderthals was killed and eaten by Cro-Magnons and then the teeth was worn as a necklace. This is based on the discovery of a single Neanderthal jawbone that seems to have been cut and skinned like food and its teeth had been manually removed.

Of course, it could have been any one or more than one of these theories that could have caused the final extinction of the Neanderthals.


Jared Diamond, The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal, Harper Perennial, 2001.

Pre-Historic Malta

People arrived on Malta from Sicily about 5200 BC. This is based on Radio Carbon-14 dating of ashes from manmade fires found in caves. The first humans on Malta lived in thise caves and later built huts and small villages.

For some reason, starting about 6000 years ago the ancient Maltese started to build large stone temples. This temple building boom went on until about 4500 years ago. During that time the Maltese built fifty or so large temple complexes on Malta proper and the nearby smaller island of Gozo. Most of these buildings follow a comparable floor plan. A central corridor leads to one or more crescent shaped rooms, all of which have one or more niches carved into the walls.

As a matter of comparison this is about the same time that the different phases of Stonehenge were also erected. The temples on Malta are believed to be the oldest free standing stone structures in the world.

The most significant still existing temple complex is the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples. The Hagar Qim Temples are built on cliffs overlooking the open sea and present an impressive view of the Mediterranean Sea. Only a few hundred meters away and closer to the sea are the Mnajdra Temples. Both these building were completed around 3200 CE although they were started years earlier. Both follow the standard Maltese temple plan of a central hall and curved chambers. The enormous walls are particularly extraordinary, being built only with human power. The Mnajdra Temple has two chambers but is otherwise similar to Hagar Qim.

Most likely built around 2400 BC the underground Saflieni Hypogeum was a cultic center for the veneration of a goddess. This temple likely began as cave and when was extended. The Hypogeum features gaps into which people would drop offerings into the cave below. The Hypogeum was also a burial site. Also, the famous “Sleeping Lady” of Malta was found in the Hypogeum. The “Sleeping Lady” is a Paleolithic “Venus” as a statute carved with hugely outsized curves, denoting a female figure. The “Sleeping Lady” is now in the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, the capitol of Malta.

The last of the major Maltese temples are the Tarxien Temples. These four temples are the most highly decorated of all the temples with a comprehensive twisting pattern cut in bas reliefs. The Tarxien temples were finished around 2000 BC.

These extraordinary buildings have some solar and astronomical alignments. These alignamnets focus on the position of the sun on the equinoxes and solstices. This is again similar to some of the arrangements of Stonehenge and other megalithic and Neolithic cultic sites around the world.

The History of Millet Cultivation in East Asia

There is good evidence that millet, in the form of the broomcorn variety millet, may have been the first crop ever domesticated. Millet is a highly nutrition grain being rich in protein, B complex vitamins and iron. Millet is particularly important in arid and semi-arid environments as the plant is highly drought resistance.

Previously, it was thought that agriculture started in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys sometime between 12000 and 7000 years ago with the so-called founder crops of wheat and barley. Agriculture then spread from the Fertile Crescent into the Jordan and Nile valleys and then into Europe. This theory states that agriculture was later developed independently in the Chinese river valleys, the Indus valley, South America, Central America and North America and Papua New Guinea.

Recently, digs in North China indicate that by as early as 8000 years ago the millet seeds being consumed by domesticated animals were of the domesticated varieties to the exclusion of the wild varieties. From there, millet growing spread slowly westward until by 5000 BCE, millet was being grown in and around the Black Sea region of what is now Russia. Archeologist Dorian Fuller of University College London says: “Domestication of millet was apparently under way in northern China at a time when farmers in the south were just beginning to cultivate wild rice.”

Using this new data it seems that millet and rice, rather than wheat and barley, were the original founder crops. Then millet planting as well as the very idea of agriculture spread westward by diffusion. The advantages of millet as a staple food are the same as those for wheat and barley. That is to say like wheat and barley; millet can be soaked in water, boiled and eaten as gruel. Because millet is gluten free it cannot be used to make raised bread, but is used to make flatbreads. Further, millet can be soaked in water and left to naturally ferment to make a crude beer. many civilizations developed from this base of growing crops to bake bread and brew beer.

It is this flexibility in products that can be made from staple crops that allowed humans to use them and gain a food advantage from these crops over simple hunting and gathering. It is this action that allowed humans to settle down in one place, grow the population and develop civilization.


Childe, Gordon. Man Makes Himself , Oxford University Press, 1936

Balter, Michael.