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.


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.



1 lb. bacon cut into 1 inch pieces

3 lb. venison cube steak

4 tbsp. flour

12 oz’s beef stock

12 oz’s Stout or Porter beer

2 med. carrots, sliced

2 med. potatoes in 1 inch cubes

Small white onion diced

1 teaspoon Salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 tbsp. chopped parsley

2 cups sliced mushrooms


Sauté bacon in large saucepan until done, but not crisp. Remove and set aside.

Cut venison into approx.2 inch pieces chunks and brown over high flame in bacon fat.

Stir in flour, lower flame and let brown 2-3 minutes, stirring.

Add Beef broth and Beer and let simmer 1 hour or until venison begins to get tender, adding more liquid as necessary.

Add all other ingredients, including reserved bacon and continue to simmer about 1 hour to make thick stew.

Serve with buttered corn muffins or biscuits.


Smoked Sausage and Black Bean soup

Smoked Sausage and Black Bean soup


1 Lb smoked sausage; sliced about 1/2 inch thick

1 can black beans

1 can diced tomatoes

1 lb white potatoes cubed about 1/2 inch square

1 medium white onion roughly chopped

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

Chicken or beef broth


Add first six ingredients to crock pot, slow cooker or stew pot, add enough broth to cover all in fluid, cook until potatoes are soft (at least 2 hours, depending on heat).



Spicy Shepherd’s Pie

Spicy Shepherd’s Pie


• Appox. 2 LBs ground meat (beef, turkey, pork, bison)
• 3/4 cup Worchester sauce
• 1/2 cup hot sauce
• 1/4 cup chopped onions
• 1/2 cup chopped mixed peppers (red/green/yellow)
• 2 cups mixed fresh or frozen vegetables (corn/peas/green beans/carrots)

2 cups mashed potatoes (fresh or instant)

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese.


Brown meat in large sauce pan then drain well.

Stir in Worchester sauce, hot sauce, chopped onions, chopped mixed peppers, and mixed fresh or frozen vegetables (corn/peas/green beans/carrots). Continue cooking until sauces are well mixed and veggies are soft.

Spread Mashed potatoes over top of meat veggies mix, sprinkle with shredded cheese. Bake at 350 degrees until cheese is melted and juices are bubbling. (about 30 minutes)


Bacon Wrapped Pork loin

Bacon Wrapped Pork loin
• 4-5 LB pork loin, cleaned and trimmed
• One pound sliced bacon
• 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
• 1 teaspoon of Salt
• 1 tablespoon dried crumbled leaf basil
• 1 tablespoon dried crumbled leaf oregano
• 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
• ¼ cup olive oil
Combine garlic, salt, basil, oregano, and black pepper; rub seasoning all over the pork tenderloin. Wrap pork with bacon (some slices placed lengthwise and some overlapping around the loin) and secure with string. Take olive oil and coat pork loin well. Place in a 9×13 pan and bake uncovered in a  400 degree oven for 45 to 60 minutes, or until pork reaches about 165° in the center. Make sure the bacon is really done.


Stuffed Flank Steak

Stuffed Flank Steak

• 4 X 2 LB flank steaks
• 16 Ounces crumbled Feta Cheese
• 1 teaspoon of Pepper
• 1 teaspoon of Salt
• 1 teaspoon of Garlic Powder
• 1 teaspoon of Onion Powder
• 16 Ounces Chopped greens (spinach, mixed, kale, etc)
• 1 each medium red bell pepper, green bell pepper, onion and yellow pepper roughly Chopped

PREPARATION: Season both sides of the steaks with the pepper, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder. Lay the chopped greens, peppers, onions and feta on the flank steaks, roll the steaks into a cylinder, and secure with string. Push any of the stuffing that comes out back into the rolled steak. Bake in open pan for 45minutes at 350-400 degrees, or until done thru. One steak will serve 2 to 3 people.