Your Health

Meat, Fire And The Evolution Of Man

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

You can't have a big belly and a big brain at the same time.

Marine cooks meat

Marine Lance Corporal Jimmy Finley from Louisiana grills steaks at a Forward Operating Base  in Deleran, Afghanistan. Joe Raedle/Getty Images Europe hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images Europe

That's just the way it is, says anthropologist Leslie Aiello, who runs a foundation that funds research in evolution called Wenner-Gren.

Now, we're not saying that obesity is somehow linked with intelligence. Rather, Aiello's rule explains how humans evolved — how and why we went from small-brained, raw-food eating primates to carnivorous, large-brained cooks.

In the latest story from our series "The Human Edge," Aiello and others explain that eating nothing but raw vegetable matter, as most apes and most probably our earliest ancestors did, means you've got to have a really big gut. Think cow-like.

That's because there aren't a lot of calories in leaves, berries, nuts, and tubers. So you have to eat constantly and pack as much into your gut as you can. The gut was an energy-hog, and digestion consumed most of the energy our bodies produced.

Then our ancestors discovered meat. Meat contains lots of calories in a small package. More meat allowed our guts to shrink. Digestion wasn't so labor-intensive, so to speak. So where did the body's extra energy go? Into building a bigger brain! That's the theory, anyway.

More meat also changed out teeth, as well as our jaw. We no longer need big grain-grinding chompers. With bigger brains, we invented tools that cut up our food for us.

And then, when some clever cave-dweller discovered fire, cooking continued to alter our bodies. That's the view of Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, who explains that cooking food — meat or otherwise — gives us more calories and energy from our food.

Although now we may have gone too far with the whole meat thing.

But belly up and give a listen to our story on "guts, teeth and cooking." And as the Neanderthals used to say around the campfire, Bon Appetit!



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from