Chew on this


March 10, 2016

Human anatomy and behavior appear to have changed significantly around two million years ago with the emergence of a new hominin species, Homo erectus.  Brains were larger, legs were longer, the ability to range greater distances expanded. What caused these changes?

In an article in the journal Nature this week, authors Katherine Zink and Daniel Lieberman report experiments which support the use of stone tools to cut meat into small portions to reduce the amount of mastication - chewing - before swallowing the food. As the authors say in their article,

“The origins of the genus Homo are murky, but by H. erectus, bigger brains and bodies had evolved that, along with larger foraging ranges, would have increased the daily energetic requirements of hominins. Yet H. erectus differs from earlier hominins in having relatively smaller teeth, reduced chewing muscles, weaker maximum bite force capabilities, and a relatively smaller gut. This paradoxical combination of increased energy demands along with decreased masticatory and digestive capacities is hypothesized to have been made possible by adding meat to the diet, by mechanically processing food using stone tools or by cooking. Cooking, however, was apparently uncommon until 500,000 years ago and the effects of carnivory and Palaeolithic processing techniques on mastication are unknown. Here we report experiments that tested how Lower Palaeolithic processing technologies affect chewing force production and efficacy in humans consuming meat and underground storage organs (USOs). We find that if meat comprised one-third of the diet, the number of chewing cycles per year would have declined by nearly 2 million (a 13% reduction) and total masticatory force required would have declined by 15%. Furthermore, by simply slicing meat and pounding USOs, hominins would have improved their ability to chew meat into smaller particles by 41%, reduced the number of chews per year by another 5%, and decreased masticatory force requirements by an additional 12%. Although cooking has important benefits, it appears that selection for smaller masticatory features in Homo would have been initially made possible by the combination of using stone tools and eating meat. “

In short, chewing raw, uncooked meat is difficult and time consuming but cutting the portions smaller makes eating meat and tough tubers more efficient.

Read the full article entitled Impact of meat and Lower Palaeolithic food processing techniques on chewing in humans.