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Slicing and Pounding Food Had a Profound Impact on Early Humans

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Daniele Giannotti
/
Flickr

A recent study published in Nature found that by pounding vegetables and cutting meat, early humans saved hours of chewing time every day. In fact, our ancestors saved more than 2.5 million chews every year through these simple methods of processing food.

How researchers came to this conclusion is another story entirely. Subjects were enticed to join the study with a sign that simply read, “Chew for Science.”

“They would come and they would chew food. Either goat meat, or some root vegetables like carrots and yams and beets,” says Katie Zink, the lead author of the study. “Those foods were either left raw, or they were roasted, so simple cooking methods, or they were processed mechanically using some of the simplest types of methods that would have been available through the use of stone tools.”

"By simply eating a third of your diet in meat, pounding your tubers, slicing up your meat, you saved about 17% fewer chews."

The subjects would either swallow the food, or spit it into a tube for Zink to analyze the particles afterward. While sifting through chewed, raw goat meat might not sound like a fun time, Zink says what they learned from the simple study was worth the trouble.

“We found that by simply eating a third of your diet in meat, pounding your tubers, slicing up your meat, you saved about 17% fewer chews,” she says. When we compare the amount of time we spend chewing to other primates, the difference is pretty significant.

“A chimpanzee spends most of their day eating, waiting for their belly to empty, and eating some more. Modern hunter-gatherers have already reduced that down to about 5% of their day,” says Zink.

So what does that say about early humans, as well as our own, evolution? Since our ancestors no longer needed larger jaws and teeth, it allowed for the selection of different anatomical structures that were beneficial to our survival. And by spending less time chewing and using less energy on digestion, our ancestors would have been able to use their time on more creative endeavors.

“You can imagine if you’re not chewing then you have all this more time to do other things,” says Zink.

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Joy Powers joined WUWM January 2016 as producer for Lake Effect. Most recently, she was a director and producer for The Afternoon Shift, on WBEZ-fm, Chicago Public Radio.