Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Biological Anthropologists on National Public Radio

For two mornings in a row, my daily ablutions were accompanied by fascinating NPR stories of anthropological significance, thanks to Herman Pontzer , Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington University, Leslie Aiello, President of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and Richard Wrangham, Professor of Anthropology at Harvard University.

In Orangutans Aren't Lazy, Just Evolved To Hang Around, Dr. Pontzer discusses the amazing metabolism of orangutans, reporting that even large 250 pound males consume only about 2,000 calories daily, about 20% less than a typical human male. Pontzer and associates posit in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that this surprising metabolic apportioning may be due to the relative scarcity of orangutans preferred food: ripe fruit.

Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter is a thoughtful and entertaining mashup of Aiello and Wheeler's Expensive Tissue Hypothesis and Wrangham et al.'s ecology of cooking .
In short, brains are expensive and the ancestral hominin diet (root vegetables or underground storage organs as we in the biz like to call them, fruits, nuts, etc., presumably all uncooked) cannot be expected to have provided the nutritional substrate for the significant racheting up of brain size and function that appears to be so critical in the last two million years of hominin evolution. Add meat, that calorie-, protein-, and fat-rich foodstuff and wowza! Holy Big Brain, Batman! Cook that dead zebra and you break down indigestible connective tissue, render fat, and unwind the long protein chains in the muscle tissue, making the whole package that much more nutritious. Adding veggies to the fire, particularly starchy tubers, makes the nutrients locked within more accessible as well. As one expects from Wrangham, there's a bit of showmanship in the kitchen scenes in the NPR piece, but it's stuff like that that makes what we do fun, exciting, and as accessible as cooked meat.

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