July 14, 2009

Guts for Brains

or… How Bar-B-Cue made us Smarter

A couple of million years ago the brains of our ancestor, Homo erectus, suddenly started growing larger, while their guts started shrinking. At about the same time, the structure of their teeth changed from sharp and fanglike, to smaller, duller things more like those of modern Home sapiens.

This is curious. Something prompted the rapid change in organ size, but what? We have an evolutionary quandary with few supportable theories, and inquiring minds want to know.

Enter Bar-B-Cue.

One of the more valid theories involves the discovery of fire and the consumption of charred flesh. Our ancestors discovered the benefit of eating more and better meat, thereby beginning the long process of swapping gut for gray matter.

Cooked meats are easier to chew, meaning we could eat more with less effort. The effect was higher percentages of protein delivered more quickly to the brain; leading to enhanced intellectual growth, language and motor skills development, more leisure time, and the eventual discovery of the pleasures of beer.

So, AD... we’re in good company.



Ambulance Driver said...

Personally, I feel smarter every time I eat your barbecue and drink your beer.

Rogue Medic said...

Now I have a craving for some brain food. Take that you nasty prions. ;-)

MiniKat said...

Another perfectly good reason to break out the grill, the smoker, and find some good beer. :-)

Mule Breath said...


There is satisfaction in the knowledge that I have had some, small effect on your development from coonass into a higher specie.

However, please don't forget the Andouille for the Virgo party. Speaking of which, you should try this amazing recipe I found for gumbo.

jeg43 said...

Aside from the cheerful ragging, I'd like to comment that carnivores tend to have more pointy teeth. The flatter, grinding teeth usually indicate a diet of plant material - so I'm a bit skeptical about this bar-b-que/bigger brain theory.
Our mix of cutting and grinding equipment isn't the best for getting through the usually tough hide most meat is wrapped in. I think we're lucky we figured out how to make cutting tools . . .

Mule Breath said...

Well, it is just a theory, but there are two or three things missing from your suggestion.

It is theorized, since cooked meat is easier to chew than uncooked, that the sharper teeth were less necessary. We didn't lose them altogether, with some becoming less sharp and some became grinders instead of shredders.

Secondly, since cooked meet is less tough, less work is required for chewing and the protein content delivered is increased. H. erectus could make better use of less food.

The combination of greater nutrient value and increased leisure time is theorized to have produce conditions conducent to gray matter growth.

Your point about cutting tools is taken, but I would still tend to think that the scenario about which I joked makes good theory.

jeg43 said...

Remembering my first experiences with meat on a stick cooking, I must confess that my raw product was orders of magnitude more tender than my flame-seared one. I admit that a chance-dropped chunk of raw whatever could have fallen onto the edges of a fire and gotten covered with ash/coals and accidentally slow-cooked to tenderness out of sight and mind - to be "found" some time later and savored. The discovery of "cooking" has a huge flavor of accident - no fire-proof containers - did an animal fall into a fire pit? Did they build fires across the mouth of their cave dwelling and one night kill an attacking animal which died crossing the fire, thus cooking while the people fought off the remainder of the pack while keeping the fire going (the first all-night critter roast)?
It seems to me that learning about cooking would have been a very long process - too long to have been the primary reason for evolutionary change in our chewers.
I do recall that there seems to be evidence of fire found in most of the excavated prehistoric sites, so I have to admit the bar-b-que to brains theory is plausible.
The fact that so many of us are fond of our bar-b-qued critters makes me wonder how we got side-tracked into grain farming . . .

Rogue Medic said...


There is an interesting explanation of the possible reasons for settling down and specializing in different tasks in Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map. And, since the book is about cholera, which is due to urban living with poor sanitation. He writes about some of the problems, too. An excellent book.

jeg43 said...

I'll try to find it. Thanks.

Rogue Medic said...

It should be an easy book to find. He is a very interesting writer, but this is the only book of his I have read so far.

There should be some copies in the library.

Mule Breath said...


Please consider a late 19th century study by Franz Boas, then professor of anthropology at Columbia. If you don’t recognize the name, Boas was an evolutionary social anthropologist who was instrumental in wrecking the misguided racial superiority and eugenics beliefs of that era. He authored a paper in which he observed eastern European immigrants to the United States started growing taller and heavier almost as quickly as they arrived, a phenomenon he attributed it to a greatly improved diet. Although I can’t at the moment locate the cite, I did find a statement by another anthropologist of the time, William English Walling. Walling observed that "This epoch making report of Boas shows that children born within a few years after the arrival of their parents in this country differ essentially from their progenitors."

More recent studies show school breakfast programs result in improved learning in elementary school children. So, I suspect the nutrition theory has right smart validity.