Cooking - the only thing unique to us

"Once fire was discovered, the instinct for improvement made men bring food to it. First to dry it, then to put it on the coals to cook." Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

My aim here is to prove - well suggest - that cooking, which came from the discovery of creating and using fire - is what truly distinguishes us from other animals. The thing that makes us human.


Let me define cooking here - creating and applying heat in some way to raw ingredients. I would have included other things like marinading and fermenting, but apparently there are some animals who do things like this. Examples I found were:


"adult bigheaded ants place food onto the bellies of their larvae for them to spit enzymes onto, resulting in a more easily digestible meal. In the bird world, shrikes (also called butcher birds) impale poisonous lubber grasshoppers on thorns for up to two days to allow time for the toxins to degrade before tucking in." Dr. Alastair Gunn/Science Focus


There were a few more similar examples here and there and one of a captive bonobo who had taught itself to make fire by watching videos, and then toasted a marshmallow - given to him by his captors/researchers/owners - whatever you want to call them. So perhaps one can teach animals to cook, even to make a fire, but the original idea did not come from the bonobo. He did not invent videos.


In recent times there have been all sorts of attempts to find the thing or things that differentiates the human race from other animals, but so far I think most of the suggestions have been disproved. Creativity in the artistic sense? What about all those elaborate displays, bowers and nests that birds devise? Tools - long ago disproved. Ceremony and ritual - elephants, for example, seem to have ritual burials. Language - well what about dolphins and whales - even complex bird songs like those of the magpie? Not a language that we can understand, but language surely? And if you merely define language as communication well obviously animals do this, often in very sophisticated ways. Sex purely for pleasure? Also disproved. Social structure and rules? - well we all know about the pecking order.


As to the mind - in very recent times they have found that dogs are capable of love - well we knew that anyway didn't we, and that lots of animals dream? I did find semi-learned things about things our brains can do that other animals don't which really came down to inventiveness and abstract thought and building on acquired knowledge. Which may be true but then again maybe not. And I do admit that when we have discovered that animals can do many of the things we do, it is indeed in a very limited and primitive way and doesn't lead to civilisation. I even found one Adam Rutherford, saying in The Guardian - "many animals learn, but only we teach". However, surely this is not true?


No - I think it all goes back to fire and this leads to cooking. No animal cooks food in the sense of taking it beyond dried in the sun.


Legend has it that Prometheus gave mankind fire and was punished for it. Here is an overview of the whole thing from Wikipedia. Including bits that you might not know:


"In the trick at Mecone, a sacrificial meal marking the "settling of accounts" between mortals and immortals, Prometheus played a trick against Zeus. He placed two sacrificial offerings before the Olympian: a selection of beef hidden inside an ox's stomach (nourishment hidden inside a displeasing exterior), and the bull's bones wrapped completely in "glistening fat" (something inedible hidden inside a pleasing exterior). Zeus chose the latter, setting a precedent for future sacrifices. Henceforth, humans would keep that meat for themselves and burn the bones wrapped in fat as an offering to the gods. This angered Zeus, who hid fire from humans in retribution. In this version of the myth, the use of fire was already known to humans, but withdrawn by Zeus.


Prometheus stole fire back from Zeus in a fennel stalk and restored it to humanity. This further enraged Zeus, who sent the first woman to live with humanity (Pandora, not explicitly mentioned). The woman, a "shy maiden", was fashioned by Hephaestus out of clay and Athena helped to adorn her properly. Hesiod writes, "From her is the race of women and female kind: of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth". For his crimes, Prometheus was punished by Zeus, who bound him with chains and sent an eagle to eat Prometheus' immortal liver every day, which then grew back every night. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles, with Zeus' permission, killed the eagle and freed Prometheus from this torment." Wikipedia


The first version of this myth was written down by Hesiod in his epic Theogony back in the 8th century BC. So it's very old. And so interesting because of all that symbolism. Let me explain some of it. Prometheus is etymologically connected to 'forethought' - one of the very concepts that modern scientists are proposing as the thing that differentiates us from animals. The giving of fire in the Prometheus legend is simply a variation of a legend, that exists in a huge number of cultures around the world. At least the stealing of fire part.


Indeed the Aborigines had a story of the fire bird who stole fire to start more - and this has recently been proved to be true. Witness this photograph of the fire hawk which apparently 'steals' burning twigs from the edge of bush fires so that it can start another one, which will drive out small animals that it can easily catch. And no, it's not a trick photograph. Not quite cooking though - more like shopping in the modern sense - hunting in the old one. Extraordinary though. Birds are so much cleverer than we ever thought.


In the Greek myth however, fire is symbolic of technology, knowledge and more generally, civilisation itself, with Prometheus seen as the author of human arts and sciences.


A side issue is the creation of Pandora from clay (earth) by Hephaestus - god of a number of things including sculptors and fire, although he does not bring her to life - that is Athena's job. She, with her box, was intended as a punishment to mankind for having fire. So men had it in for women from a very early age, although let's acknowledge that it was the female Athena who brought her to life. But then again maybe she really did want to punish men!


Final two food associated things from the Prometheus legend - the fire was given on a branch of fennel. Fennel was called 'marathon' in ancient Greek and it was believed to give strength without gaining weight and thus was popular with athletes. So maybe the association here is the strength associated with fire, and a link with food as well. Why did the bird eat Prometheus' liver not his heart or his brain? Well the liver was the symbol of the emotions to the Greeks. Interesting though that it regenerated every day, because the liver is the only human organ I believe that can regenerate itself. Surely the Ancient Greeks did not know that.


I must admit I did not know that Prometheus was eventually released by Heracles - although with Zeus' permission - by killing the eagle. Which is interesting if the eagle was the symbol of Zeus. Hmm.


Enough of Greek legends. Incredibly interesting though they are and how intricate, interconnected, universal and symbolic.


Back to fire and prehistoric man. There is a great deal of controversy about prehistoric man's use of fire. Currently most seem to date it to around 400,000 years ago, but others go back as far as 1.6 million years ago. And there is also a difference between keeping a naturally occurring fire going, and creating a fire from scratch. Obviously initially these creatures did as the fire hawks and used twigs from an existing fire to start another. So why don't the greater apes do this? They do, after all, have fingers and hands capable of physically doing this. After all, probably the two primary uses of fire are protection and keeping warm. Hence the controversy about early humanoids in Europe having fire, because Europe was extremely cold at the time.


But then came cooking and with that socialisation and leisure. Time to relax and share stories - well I don't think they believe that there was language back then - companionship anyway. And more importantly less time was needed to digest cooked food than uncooked food, and so there was more time and energy available to think.


"Not only has it allowed us to contract fewer diseases and infections, it is also thought to have dramatically reduced the energy demands of our gut, allowing our brains to develop the way they have." The Dodo


Which seems rather a vague notion really. Does digestion take up so much energy that you can't think at the same time? I think there's more to it than that - otherwise animals such as cats, koalas, sloths - well very many animals really - that spend huge chunks of time sitting around would be very thoughtful. And they're not always digesting food because they haven't always found any.


“If you see a campfire as just a fire, your imagination is very weak, because it is not a lifeless warmth, but a mysterious friend who came to visit you in the darkness of the forest and shared your food, dreams and life!” Mehmet Murat ildan


If I'm honest tools must have come before fire. Particularly tools that enabled them to hunt and kill animals. Maybe man was initially vegetarian and merely a gatherer of fruit, leaves, roots, nuts and berries. Maybe they just clubbed the occasional small animal to death with a stone or threw a bigger stone at it. Maybe they devised traps with fallen trees and twigs. And, for sure, initially anything killed or found dead would have been eaten raw. But it would also have been a time of little progress - just survival.


With fire, as explained, came more time for all manner of things.

“The comforts of life’s essentials - food, fire, and friendships …” Julia Child


Coincidentally this photograph illustrates this to a tee. Although a publicity shot - it's advertising that map that in time of COVID lockdown that showed you your 5km limit - it really does show how important human companionship is, and how that is almost always associated with food, which in one way or another is associated with fire.


And over the thousands and thousands of years since that first fire, we have found thousands and thousands of ways to use that fire to cook. thousands and thousands of ways of making that fire and using it in ever more inventive ways as well. And all of that involved much thought, inventiveness, scientific knowledge, craft, art, creativity in fact. Nothing warlike - well unless you include Masterchef and its ilk.


Today we cook in the most primitive ways over a camp fire - Halloween and Guy Fawkes are looming, summer holidays camping at the beach as well, barbecues in the backyard, and those meals cooked on coals in a pit that is then covered over - as the Polynesians do. We smoke fish, we fashionably char on griddles, cook kebabs in the street around the world. We hang things in pots over fires. But along the way we have learnt ever more complicated ways of cooking food. and continue to do so it seems.


Now that I am at the end of this little piece, I feel I have written all this before, so apologies. Don't think I explored Prometheus though. And it's always good to bolster the reputation of cooking as the creator of civilisation. And I don't think I viewed it as the distinguishing from animals feature either. Now I'm really convinced by that.


And in line with that I also saw one writer say that a distinctly human feature is "the instinct for improvement." I don't think animals have that.

“Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food, and an immense quiet.” Ralph Waldo Emerson


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