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Cooking and Human Evolution

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 12 November 2009

Geoff Watts follows an archaeological theme, beginning at a critical stage of human evolution about 1.9 million years ago. Our ancestors then were unlike any other ape. Not only were they walking upright, but their mouths and teeth were smaller and their digestive tracts shorter - just like modern humans. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham thinks that was possible because of cooking. Cooked food is easier to chew and digest, freeing up time for other activities, and requiring patience, ingenuity and division of labour around the cooking fire.

Another revolution occurred a mere 10,000 years ago, with the Neolithic revolution and the dawn of settled agriculture. Dr Tamsin O'Connell of Cambridge University describes how the change of diet left its traces in bones and how she can distinguish between diets based around different crops, meat or seafood.

Archaeologists are now exploring the oldest Atlantis - a Mycenaean city submerged beneath the Mediterranean. The ruins of Pavlopetri were discovered off the Greek coast in 1967, but now Dr Jon Henderson of Nottingham University is surveying them for the first time and has shown that they date back almost 5,000 years, through the Bronze Age and into the Neolithic.

The underwater search continues almost to modern times, with the quest to trace the lost ships of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 expedition to the frozen waters of the North West Passage. Robert Grenier of Parks Canada is leading the search, and meets Geoff at an exhibition about the North West Passage at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

  • Foundations of a high-status building under the Mediterranean at Pavlopetri. Photo: Dr Jon Henderson

    Foundations of a high-status building under the Mediterranean at Pavlopetri. Photo: Dr Jon Henderson


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