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How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?
How does food matter to human evolution? We could ask this guy?Courtesy Lord Jim
What makes human beings so special? How did we evolve into an agriculture-developing, city-building, history-making, world-changing species that can live on every continent and even in outer space?

Scientists have been asking questions about our evolutionary trajectory and human "uniqueness" for as long as there's been science - and guess what? We still don't know the answer! Some of our best theories are explored by anthropologists in the PBS television series The Human Spark, airing throughout the month and also online at the PBS website. If you're curious, you might want to watch, but don't do it on an empty stomach! Many of the theories that anthropologists have developed to explain how we became human involve food.

That food and evolution would go hand in hand is not really surprising, since food is necessary to survival and an important and dynamic part of our environment. Did a search for nutritious plants and animals lead our ancestors to new environments, causing our species to adapt and change? Did hunting and eating meat mean the evolution of new physical characteristics? How has agriculture changed our environment and species over time? How will present and future foods change what it means to be human in the future?

Some evolutionary theories involving food look not just at what we ate, but how we ate it - namely the invention of fire and the use of heat to cook food. Think about it: our Hominid ancestors needed calories in order to develop into the big-brained humans we all know and love. How did they do it? And what did this mean for human evolution?

Sure, eating meat was an important dietary step, but cooking root vegetables can transform hard-to-chew or even poisonous plant parts into nutritious food that can be consumed out of season. With cooking, environments that would otherwise provide few nutritious options suddenly become bountiful. This change in diet may also have led to changes in body size and shape - even social structures! Large teeth and jaws were less desirable once food could be more easily chewed, and delaying the gratification of food until it could be cooked may also have meant that our species had to develop new social skills.

Those social skills - the same ones that mean you and I can now share a burger or beer without fighting each other for scraps - may be one of many "sparks" that makes us human.

If you live in the Twin Cities, you can meet an anthropologist and here how he thinks food impacted human evolution by attending tonight's Cafe Scientifique program in Minneapolis.