Eating meat may have helped humans develop speech: study

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Next time you’re chowing down on a juicy burger and chewing the fat with your friends, here’s some food for thought: Eating meat may have actually helped your ancient ancestors to develop the ability to speak, according to a new study by two Harvard researchers.

Researchers Katherine D. Zink and Daniel E. Lieberman wanted to bridge the gap between the fact that early humans, Homo erectus, ate meat – but had no way to cook it. (Homo erectus first appeared 1.5 million years ago, but all the evidence seems to show humans didn’t make fire until 1 million years later.)

Zink and Lieberman gave 34 participants, some male, some female, between 19 and 53 years old, meat and veg to eat – to see how long it took them to chew it. Some of the food – goat meat, yams, carrots and beetroot – was served raw, some was cooked, while the rest was pounded and tenderized using replica Palaeolithic tools.

More meat…

Amazingly, they found if meat made up 1/3 of our ancient ancestors’ diet, even if it was not processed at all, it would have reduced the number of chews needed by 13% and the effort needed to consume food by 15%. By comparison, if we had eaten roots and tubers alone, it would have taken about 40,000 chews a day, which adds up to around 11 hours of gnashing – most of the waking day.

As a result our ancestors would have saved a huge amount of time and effort, just from adding meat to their diets.

Using tools to break down the food helped matters even further, improving our ability to chew meat by 41%, as well as reducing the number of chews by 5% and the effort required by an extra 12%.

And what do you do when you no longer need to worry about spending all day chewing on veg like a herbivore? Look for mates to chat to apparently.

…smaller teeth?

“We think it is…likely that tool use and meat-eating…permitted selection to decrease facial and dental size for other functions such as speech production, locomotion, thermoregulation, or perhaps even changes in the size and shape of the brain,” write Zink and Lieberman.

In short – eating meat allowed us to choose partners with smaller teeth – the kind of teeth that give us the ability to speak the 6,500 languages we humans use today.

Perhaps more of a medium rare theory than a well done fact, but definitely something to chew the fat over.

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Jenni Sheppard Staff writer at Vancity Buzz. Happy Vancouverite. Traveller, snowboarder, film fan, feminist, geek, curler.
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