In our schooldays we learnt that the biggest turning point for human civilisation occurred when our ancestors learnt to manage fire. Domesticating fire for the purpose of cooking is considered the major causal factor in the evolutionary development of Homo Sapiens.
If we were to feed only on raw uncooked food, even with the superb chewing prowess of chimps, which gives them a rate of 400 food calories an hour, after done gathering the food we would be chewing it for the rest of our waking hours. Either that, or an active brain of this size would not be sustained. Your brain, incidentally, though only 2% of your body mass, requires about 20% of the energy needed by your body at rest!
Having harnessed the power of fire, humans could cook food and consume calories in large doses and today, no human group eats all of its food raw.
"Receiving these extra calories [from cooking]...allowed the human brain to evolve into a bigger and a better powerhouse.
Around 900,000 years ago, fire was first brought into our homes. This coincided with a peak in glacial activity, and probably helped the genus Homo to survive global cooling. This was the period of Homo Erectus, who went on to evolve into us.
Raw food, by mass, does not contain that many calories, but thanks to fire, a shift to cooked foods was possible, allowing our ancestors to pack more into their daily meals.
Research has highlighted the result of receiving these extra calories -- it allowed the human brain to evolve into a bigger and a better powerhouse. Receiving extra calories allowed us to divert from more mundane survival-linked activities to those that kick-started the grand amalgamation of myriad cultures that forms society today. It made us inventive, creative.
In most mythologies, fire is said to have been stolen from the gods. The Greeks have Prometheus, a Titan who did the forbidden, stealing fire from the gods to share with humans. For this, he suffered Zeus' divine wrath, and was chained to a rock for eternity.
In Indian mythology, the Rig Veda tells a story of when Agni (fire) had gone into hiding. Mātariśvan rekindled the fire, for which he earned the eternal gratitude and the respect of the gods and mankind both.
Science helped us to increase food production to meet the increasing demand, but food is organic matter and most of it perishes before it reaches people.
Fire and controlling its power was always admired (or feared), and modern science has largely evolved around the control of some form of fiery energy, whether it is industrial technologies, powerful machines or the weapons we use.
We can also trace certain modern-day issues to fire - higher population growth from more assured food options, sedentary lives and a comfort zone exceeding naturally sustainable means.
In 1969, there were half as many people as the 7.2 billion of today, and this doubling happened in only 45 years. It took most of human history till around 1800 AD for the world population to reach one billion; the second billion was achieved in only 130 years (1930); the third in less than 30 years (1959); the fourth in 15 years (1974) and the fifth billion added in only 13 years (1987). Just 12 more years to reach six billion in 1999. The burgeoning and unsustainable population growth is a serious problem.
Science helped us to increase food production to meet the increasing demand, but food is organic matter and most of it perishes before it reaches people. The science of delivering what we produce to consumers needs more... it requires harnessing the power of ice, of cold.
This process started merely a century or so ago, with the advent of modern refrigeration and transport. Da Vinci is recognised as the first to use an air cooler, though historical records also indicate that the Indian subcontinent was where evaporative cooling was first used a millennium ago. Even today, 50% of global use of evaporative cooling is in India, and 20% in the US.
With a growing populace, it is being recognised that cold-chain as a food delivery system is crucial for humankind's survival.
The majority of refrigeration today relies on the same basic principal of hundreds of years ago, that cooling occurs when a fluid vaporises.
Today, cold-chain or the use of temperature-regulated distribution-based logistics is becoming commonplace. With a growing populace, it is being recognised that cold-chain as a food delivery system is crucial for humankind's survival. Our success depends on how well be are able to manipulate the effects of cooling and counter its negatives.
We are far from understanding and harnessing the "cold" or its power fully. Cold is conventionally viewed as something to be kept at bay -- probably a throwback to Ice Age fears! It is imperative that humankind fully grasps and controls the power of ice, so our species can continue to thrive and prosper.
Interestingly, all ancient cultures had a fire god, symbolising power, epitomising control! In physical terms, the counter to fire is ice, but surprisingly, there are no "ice gods" in mythology.
Our civilisation readies to take another leap forward as it stands on a brink! Without harnessing the power of cold we may no longer flourish, we may lose the capacity to feed ourselves. It's time we start a new ice age. Else we may just burn out.
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham
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