Catching Fire

There have been many attempts to define the demarcation between humans and other animals. Tool use, spirituality, complex language, moral intuition, culture have all been offered. In Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham (a British primatologist working at Harvard, argues that cooking really put us on the path to becoming homo sapiens. Almost 2 million years ago cooked food helped a new species, homo erectus, with its large brain and small gut, emerge. It is cooking, too, which is responsible for the development of agrarian societies, traditional gender roles and division of labour. It has been the underpinning of all human culture.


Our ability to heat food and thereby soften it spares our bodies a lot of hard work. And the calories saved by easy digestion provides energy for other types of physical and intellectual activity. Our ancestors knew that when cooking wasn’t possible, it was better to soften or tenderize food. Steak tartare, for example, is thought to get its name from the Tartars who rode in Genghis Khan’s army. Moving swiftly and without time to make camp or cook a hot meal, the riders would put slabs of meat under their saddles, riding on them all day until they were tender enough to eat.


With more free time, complex societies could develop. Male hunters went farther afield confident that they could get enough calories in a short time from cooked grains, nuts and berries collected by the community’s gatherers. Women became bound to the fire. Wrangham traces the contemporary implications of our ancestors’ diets, allowing him to shed new light on how we came to be the social, intelligent, and sexual species we are today.


Richard Wrangham has drawn together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a compelling argument for this book. You’ll be glad to have read it, and never enjoy a cooked meal in quite the same way again.


Check if this excellent popular science book is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at


320 pages in Basic Books

First published 2009

ISBN  978-0465013623


Professor Richard Wrangham

Scroll to Top