Food link to evolution

How early humans’ quest for food stoked the flames of evolution | Evolution | The Guardian
Discuss. BTW, I think the evolution link is BS!

“From what we were able to reconstruct, it looks like the mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths all would have been unusually tasty.”

Or perhaps they were large quantities of meat that paid a high return on investment of energy for the hunters?

I have no doubt whatsoever that all of our senses evolved in response to the usefulness of the information they provided and olfaction and taste undoubtedly helped humans discriminate good food from bad but such discrimination would have been a complex process that included a bunch of information, including cultural factors.

Key decisions in the founding of culinary arts might have gone something like:

“I am soooo cold and I’m starving. I don’t remember the last time we had anything to eat.”

“It was just two nights after the last full moon. We found the scraps from a cave bear kill it must have made just before hibernating. They were frozen so hard the Ernk broke a tooth trying to bite through a piece.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Buck up. Winter’s almost over. It’ll be spring in three moons and Ouch, damn, what was that?”

“What was what?”

“I stepped on something sharp and it went through my foot wrapping. Give me a hand here and help me get the ice and frozen mud off it.”

“Hey it looks like a frozen animal of some sort.”

“Yeah, well, parts of one anyway… Come on, let’s use our spears to pry it loose from the mud and take it back to that fire thing Nerk figured out how to keep going. Maybe we can thaw it out.”

Sometime later the remains are suspended over the fire on a pointy stick of green wood carefully inserted between the hide and the meat.

“Hey what’s that sweet smell.”

“I’m not sure but it reminds me a bit of that moderately aged aardwolf we ate two moons ago. It had barely frozen at all. That was sweet.”

“It’s definitely coming from this… er, whatever this is we’re melting and it’s starting to smell really good. Hey look, the hide is starting to burn. Better get it off there.”

“OK, then… Hey, it’s still frozen in the middle.”

“OK. Let’s cut the thawed and burned stuff off the outside and stick it back in there. Better cut some more green sticks to keep it up out of the flames or it’ll burn.”

“Yeah, well this burned stuff actually tastes awesome. Try a piece.”

“Mmmm. It’s not really burned it’s just different. The black crunchy bits add interesting overtones but this brown stuff is just delicious.”

“It sure is. You hardly notice the decomposition at all. The mud adds some interesting, complex notes.”

“Gosh this is tasty. I’m never going to forget the first time I tried… er, whatever this is.”

Or something like that.

EDITED TO ADD: There is evidence of fire use long before the last ice age and it seems certain that’s use arose in different places at different times.


Yeah, that’s kind of my thinking too. Making the link to evolutionary ‘fitness’ is the part I think is BS.

What makes you think the evolution link is BS? I think it makes sense based on what this article says.

If we had not learned to cook food, then having large brains would have been too costly. We would have required too many calories to keep functioning. By cooking food we get more calories with less effort and our ancestors with larger brains are able to thrive and reproduce.


It’s not a new idea, and certain elements of it both make sense and have some peer-reviewed justification. Some parts in the article do read a bit like assumption though.

I recommend the following articles, especially the Breslin paper:


A really long time before… fire use in humans looks to date back to nearly 2 million years ago, with some controversy over the oldest dates, and to around 1.2 million years ago for regular, controlled use without much widespread controversy over that.

We have Homo erectus to thank for fire and cooking, along with many of the rest of our most important technologies.


Hi @kj417

Welcome to the forum.

The big brain hypothesis is built around a bunch assumptions and while it is true that cooking releases more energy from foods it is unclear what role it played in the evolution of human intelligence. It certainly changed the relationship between humans who cooked and their environment in ways that changed the evolutionary pressures acting on them.

Deliciousness, a concept that the Guardian article talks about a lot, is not just a biological concept. There’s a lot of culture in it. Sample Icelandic fermented shark if you doubt that. It’s a national delicacy available in Icelandic shops everywhere. Anthony Bourdain described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” that he had ever tried to eat. I’ve eaten it, more than once, out of curiosity and to be polite, but Gordon Ramsey spit it out when he tried to sample it. I would describe it as being like firm mozzarella cheese that has been soaked for a while in ammonia cleaner.

There is no universal conception of deliciousness. It is at least partly a learned thing, particular to local context, and therefore not all that readily subject to genetic selection. Taste and olfaction are subject to genetic selection for a bunch of reasons, some of them apparently (and logically) related to formation of memories about what could be eaten and what could not but the picture painted in the Guardian article is a bit hard to swallow, so to speak.


I think you replied to the wrong person.

Although, on the subject of the aged/fermented Icelandic shark, I’ve never met anyone, Icelandic or not, who actually likes it. “Delicacy” doesn’t always mean that it’s something people enjoy or want to eat, even though that’s the more commonly understood meaning.

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That has been proposed but the evidence for it can be interpreted in other ways and is challenged by many other researchers. As far as I know, the earliest generally accepted date is about 1 million years ago.

Not that it really matters. The picture painted in the Guardian article posits deliciousness as some fundamental property of olfaction and taste. It is not. An enormous range of “taste” preferences are learned.

While it is true that heating and cooking food releases aromatic compounds that would be less noticeable and less complex in uncooked food, the dominant trend in human evolution during that period was the development of information processing for memory and communication which permitted, among other things, increased efficiency in hunting and gathering and greater specialization of functions within groups. The changes in brain size, gut morphology and whatnot that the deliciousness hypothesis seeks to explain can be explained in a lot of ways if you’re prepared to make the necessary assumptions. Every technological development (including use of fire and cooking) would have changed the relationship between homonids and their environment and altered evolutionary pressures.

The part of the article that causes me to roll my eyes is the assertion that we can now conclude that giant sloths must have been really yummy. This is just silly.

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So it seems. I’ve been eating morphine to deal with kidney stones and the subsequent surgery for a week now so I’ll go with that as my excuse. Sorry @kj417.


I’ve met many. It’s considered a treat in many homes, especially at Christmas. I’m guessing that the folks who stock it in their shops wouldn’t waste the space if there was little demand. I won’t go out of my way to find it but I would eat it again if the social context required it.

Some people love scotch, some people gag at the smell.


You seem to have been selective in what part you replied to. I addressed the fact that there is controversy over the earliest dates and mentioned that the dates without significant controversy are much earlier:

fire use in humans looks to date back to nearly 2 million years ago, with some controversy over the oldest dates, and to around 1.2 million years ago for regular, controlled use without much widespread controversy over that.

Even at the most recent dates that’s roughly 1 million years before the LGM.

The point the Guardian article appears to be trying to make is that the evolution of taste is fundamentally tied to what we consider “tasty” or “delicious” due to the need for/benefits received from said foods. That in it itself is not a controversial statement and has widespread support in peer-reviewed research (I linked some articles and an excellent paper on the subject in one of my other comments).

Where the Guardian article falls apart is that the authors seem to try to over-generalize. This may be in part due to pop-culture science writing, and may also be in part due to the source material being a book rather than peer-reviewed papers Books are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and demand for accuracy that research papers are, so it’s common for people to write books to push an idea (or part of an idea) that wouldn’t otherwise be published in journals.

And yes, I agree that the assumptions about what extinct megafauna would be most tasty is ridiculous.

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Oof, I’ve been in that exact same boat. Had bad kidney stones in grad school and was put on heavy painkillers for three weeks before they finally decided that surgery was the proper option.

I hope you recover soon.

Social norms do weird things to what people eat/drink. I currently work in Vietnam. Drinking, often heavily, is a major part of the culture here. The most common drink is rượu đế, essentially rice based vodka/moonshine. Everyone makes faces and gasps when drinking it, no-one here likes the flavor and they actively say so (other than the flavored ones, but that’s not what the common drink is), but when offered options that they themselves say they like the taste of better (beer, for example) they turn it down in favor of the rượu đế.


This thread makes me think of lactose. The default condition in mammals is that the ability to digest lactose turns off right after weaning; but if the gene that does this is mutated, it never turns off.

Now, John Reader, in Africa: A Biography of the Continent, wrote of an ancient genetic split between farmers and pastoralists. Traditionally farming tribes in Africa are mostly lactose-intolerant, in the usual mammalian way; but in traditionally pastoral tribes, around 80% of people can digest lactose as adults. Reader’s explanation: in arid grasslands, when most vegetation dies off during times of drought but grass continues to grow, there would be food shortages for humans (who cannot eat grass). Those who could digest the milk from their cattle or goats were more likely to survive those times. In evolutionary time, the ability to digest lactose spread and became dominant in those populations. Meanwhile, farming tribes lived in different environments and did not experience that particular selection pressure.

This is likely a similar scenario to the prevalence of dairy products throughout the Indo-European cultures, since Proto-Indo-European came from the steppe.

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I hope your recovery is swift and complete!!!

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Yeah, but I really like Scotch. When I travelled internationally a lot I always picked up a good bottle at duty free and I belonged to a buying club. Most days I would wind down with a dram - just one - of something glorious. Quit drinking liquor (and a lot of other stuff) a decade or so ago as a major reworking of diet and lifestyle aimed at limiting the influence on my life of chronic kidney stones after an episode stressed my body so much that I ended up with shingles on top of the stones. I was a major hit with the medical staff in the Emergency Department for that one, although they kept their distance while they gawked.

Anyway, I didn’t always love scotch, I drank it for the same reason that every ten years or so I eat fermented shark - to be sociable. After a few times I discovered I liked it, I had acquired a taste. Eventually I learned that Ardbeg single malt may be a sensory gift from the gods but it is poison to me. Now if I lift a glass to my face and smell scotch I put it down immediately. I have the innate ability to recognize it because I have genetically encoded abilities of olfaction and taste but how I use them is subject to learning. Do qualities of salt, sweet, sour and umami make me want to eat things I should avoid? Of course, but these are not the complex aesthetic experiences described in the Guardian article. If they were, the junk food industry would look very different.

Anyway, I don’t think we disagree about much of substance here, except maybe the shark :grin:.

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Take a look a the following paper:

Given that lactase tolerance evolved several times differently in humans, and in environmentally very different regions it looks more like there were different reasons and pressures in each area that let to a convergent outcome.

Interestingly, cheese and yoghurt production predate the ability to consume unprocessed milk by quite a bit of time, and there are some populations with a significant portion of people who, despite lacking the necessary genetic mutations for lactase tolerance, still consume significant quantities of milk with no problems.

Fermented food is always more of necessity than delicacy, you don’t need to give little bits of food to children to make them used to it if it’s a delicacy. Storing meat for such long period is what people needed, when people could leave without it they did, either way it wouldn’t be a common practice only in harsh conditions.


I promise, me choking down lbs and lbs of kimchi, kkakdugi, saurkraut, cheese and yogurt has nothing to do with necessity. I can’t get enough of the stuff. Not to mention all the tasty alcoholic beverages, which are also fermented. It’s fermentation that gives sourdough bread its characteristic funk that people love. Beef typically goes through an aging process (i.e. fermentation). Humans like things fermented.

Children are notoriously picky eaters, fermented foods or no. They have to be coaxed into eating all sorts of things.

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No, I meant fermented sharks part, as well as other meat stored for years half-rotten but still edible if your organism is used to it (not naturally). What you listed is a regular food.

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Welcome to the forum! Always lots to talk about.
I think most of the folks above have covered the reasons I think the evolutionary link to taste is tenuous at best. Perhaps we eat more cooked meat as opposed to raw, therefore more calories, but as people have pointed out, taste can be rather subjective and learned. I just do not see how our sense of taste gave us an evolutionary advantage - Inuit have thrived on raw seal meat and blubber for a long time. Birds eat fermented fruit and get drunk, but I suppose they don’t actually taste it!