Monday, January 4, 2010

The Reason That They Had to Carry Harry to the Ferry

I think the human nose evolved to serve the human mouth. Our olfactory abilities are optimized for close-in smelling and for the retro-nasal savoring of food aroma. Our species-typical behavior of cooking and spicing food is part of our long evolutionary history of fire use.

Richard Wrangham’s idea that cooking has had a major impact on human evolution is, I believe, on the right track. In reviewing his new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, I quibbled that he gives relatively little attention to the olfactory aspect of his thesis. (Wrangham later assured me in an email that it’s something he wants to pursue.)

Cooking produces a spectrum of novel smells which, in turn, may have shaped the evolution of our olfactory receptor genome. I speculated in What the Nose Knows that the invention of deliberately fermented alcoholic beverages added yet more notes to this Darwinian symphony of food aroma.

Now comes University of Pennsylvania “biomolecular archaeologist” Patrick McGovern, who studies the chemical traces of alcoholic beverages in prehistoric pottery. According to an article by Trey Popp in The Pennsylvania Gazette
[McGovern] thinks our fondness for alcoholic beverages has been a profound force in human history. One of archaeology’s most fascinating unsettled questions concerns which foodstuff was more consequential in civilization’s early stages: bread or beer? With each ancient grog he has uncovered—particularly a 9,000-year-old specimen from China’s Yellow River Valley, which represents the earliest known alcoholic beverage—McGovern has added evidence to the tipplers’ side of the ledger. He believes the quest for fermented beverages was mankind’s primary motivation for domesticating grain-bearing plants.
*Burp*. Wine and beer fans will definitely want to read the whole thing and perhaps get McGovern’s new book, Uncorking the Past.

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