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The Ape That Took Over the World

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1600 words

What gave us the ability to become the apes that took over the world comes down to three things: bipedalism, tool-making, and fire use and acquisition. Those three things catapulted our evolution and brain size (number of neurons) and made it possible for us to be human. The cause of our extraordinary cognitive abilities is the number of neurons in our brain in total—16 billion in all. The only thing that could power a brain so energy-demanding is a diet of cooked meat and other foods. This acts as a predigestion outside of the body so more nutrients can get extracted more efficiently, to power a growing brain due to other selective pressures. Clearly, without cooking, our brains we wouldn’t have the cognitive capacity to take over the world.

In 2001 a huge finding was made in Africa, that of an ape with the beginnings of a bipedal pelvis. Soon after, footprints were discovered where the skeleton was found. A huge debate broke out, with researchers wondering how this new finding fit in with our evolution. Since Lucy had the beginnings of a bipedal pelvis, this conserved about 75 percent more energy than walking on all fours did (Sockol, Raichlen, and Pontzer, 2007). Since the human brain is our most costly organ, the advent of bipedalism freed up an immense amount of energy to power our soon to be big brains.

After the advent of bipedalism, we could then manipulate our environment which called for the need for tools. To have the ability to make tools—and make them efficiently—our ancestors needed to have hands and opposable thumbs. Since we are primates just like them, we just happen to have this evolutionary trait. To create a usable stone tool for the right situation, one needed a certain expertise in making that tool. There is evidence that our brain size increased since we needed the expertise to survive in our ancestral past (Skoyles, 2007).

Soon after, our ancestor Homo erectus appeared on the scene. The fossil record shows that our brain size really began to increase around 2 million years ago, (Herculano-Houzel, 2016). What could have driven such a rapid increase in brain size? The advent of cooking. Herculano-Houzel (2016) defines cooking as things cooked with fire, as well as foodstuffs mashed with the stone tools we could now create with our newly freed hands. After these two discoveries, brain size then nearly doubled in size. However, when the neuronal composition of the brain is looked at, it has the number of neurons expected for a brain its size (Herculano-Houzel, 2009). The human brain is not special in its neuronal composition.

Erectus began controlling fire between 1-1.5 mya (Berna et al, 2012). The use of fire softened food, making it easier to chew, decreasing our jaw muscles and size of our teeth which also allowed for our big brains with large amount of cerebral neurons—16 billion in all, the most out of any animal in the animal kingdom, and is the cause of our superior cognitive abilities (Herculano-Houzel, 2016).

Since the human brain is a primate brain, it has some key features that aren’t available in other brains. The most important being that we have the most neurons crowded into our cerebral cortex than other animals. That is the cause for our cognitive superiority over other animals, but not Neanderthals (Villa and Roebroeks, 2014). There is anthropological evidence that our so-called cognitive superiority over the Neanderthals may be a myth, since they discovered no data inferring that we had any ‘superiority’ over Neanderthals in terms of technology, social structure or cognitively.

Without our ability to control and create fire, starting with erectus (Berna et al, 2012), our brains wouldn’t have had the ability to power such a large brain, and thus our brains would have stayed erectus-sized. We can look at the evolution of great apes’ brains (Herculano-Houzel and Kaas, 2011) and say, with confidence, that if our hominin ancestors never would have controlled fire and passed down the useful skill down through the generations then we would not be here today. Looking at it in this way, we can thank the beginnings of cultural transference and acquisition for a large part of the reason why we are here today (mass extinctions and decimations aside). If we would have continued to eat our plant-based diet than our brains would have stayed around 600-800 cc, a size with nowhere near enough neurons for our outstanding cognitive abilities. So, Stephen Jay Gould may be on his way to vindication, as he wrote in his book Full House (1996): “We have no evidence that the modal form of human bodies or brains has changed at all in the past 100,000 years—a standard phenomenon of stasis for successful and widespread species, and not (as popularly misconceived) an odd exception to an expectation of continuous and progressive change.” There is now some evidence to corroborate his theorizing.

When talking about how we evolved to become the ape that took over the world, three things cannot be overlooked: 1) Bipedalism. We know that Lucy was the first hominin to have a pelvis close to our modern one (Harcourt-Smith and Aiello, 2004); 2) we could now stand upright, acquiring kcal was easier and more efficient (Lieberman, 2013); and 3) walking bipedally conserves 75 percent more energy compared to knuckle-walking (Sockol, Raichlen, and Pontzer, 2007). Bipedalism then freed our hands so we could use tools (Marzke, 2011). Furthermore, there are biomechanical reasons for the acquisition of bipedalism: one main factor being that every development of typical human morphology can be explained as adaptations to conserve energy walking long distances (Preuschoft, 2004). Bipedal walking may be one of the most important events in our evolution—for without that, every other great thing you see around you today would not be here since we then would not have the ability to manipulate the environment in which we live.

Just like our capacity for expertise may have increased our brain size, there is evidence that tool making increased our brain size as well (Stout et al, 2015). So this further increased our brain size, and when our brains reached around 800 cc with erectus, the ‘discovery’ of fire was able to occur due to the ability expertise capacity gained from becoming experts with creating tools and learning how to survive. This crude form of cooking (mashing/smashing foodstuffs to extract nutrients) allowed our brains to be fueled by the coming wave of nutrients. Furthermore, since the food was already ‘predigested’, so to speak, it was easier to chew. The softened foods then weakened our jaw muscles (Organ et al, 2011). So, in a way, you can say that human evolution is driven by dietary changes (Luca, Perry and Di Rienzo, 2010).


The advent of bipedalism allowed for the ability to make stone tools, which was one of the first cases of cultural transference. To see how important the use of fire was, one only needs to look at gorillas. Metabolic limitations resulting from the number of hours available to feed along with the low caloric yield of raw foods imposed a limitation on brain size for great apes and gorillas—imposing a tradeoff between the total neuronal amount and body size, making them the outlier in terms of body size (Fonseca-Azevedo and Herculano-Houzel, 2012). Thus, you can see the benefits of cultural transference and acquisition, which gave us the ability to have us become the ape that took over the world with our superior cognitive abilities primarily caused by the advent of cultural transference and acquisition beginning with the advent of bipedalism which allowed us to increase our foraging range, allowing us to consume higher-quality kcal to power our soon-to-be big brains, tool-making, and fire-use.


Berna, F., Goldberg, P., Horwitz, L. K., Brink, J., Holt, S., Bamford, M., & Chazan, M. (2012). Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South AfricaProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,109(20). doi:10.1073/pnas.1117620109

Dr. John R. Skoyles (1999) HUMAN EVOLUTION EXPANDED BRAINS TO INCREASE EXPERTISE CAPACITY, NOT IQ. Psycoloquy: 10(002) brain expertise

Fonseca-Azevedo, K., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2012). Metabolic constraint imposes tradeoff between body size and number of brain neurons in human evolutionProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,109(45), 18571-18576. doi:10.1073/pnas.1206390109

Gould, S. J. (1996). Full house: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York: Harmony Books.

Harcourt-Smith, W. E., & Aiello, L. C. (2004). Fossils, feet and the evolution of human bipedal locomotionJournal of Anatomy,204(5), 403-416. doi:10.1111/j.0021-8782.2004.00296.x

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2013). The Remarkable, Yet Not Extraordinary, Human Brain as a Scaled-Up Primate Brain and Its Associated Cost.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a linearly scaled-up primate brainFrontiers in Human Neuroscience,3. doi:10.3389/neuro.09.031.2009

Herculano-Houzel, S., & Kaas, J. H. (2011). Gorilla and Orangutan Brains Conform to the Primate Cellular Scaling Rules: Implications for Human Evolution.

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2016). The Human Advantage: A New Understanding of How Our Brains Became Remarkable. doi:10.7551/mitpress/9780262034258.001.0001

Lieberman, D. (2013). The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. New York: Pantheon Books.

Luca, F., Perry, G., & Rienzo, A. D. (2010). Evolutionary Adaptations to Dietary ChangesAnnual Review of Nutrition,30(1), 291-314. doi:10.1146/annurev-nutr-080508-141048

Marzke, M. W. (2013). Tool making, hand morphology and fossil homininsPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,368(1630), 20120414-20120414. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0414

Organ, C., Nunn, C. L., Machanda, Z., & Wrangham, R. W. (2011). Phylogenetic rate shifts in feeding time during the evolution of HomoProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,108(35), 14555-14559. doi:10.1073/pnas.1107806108

Preuschoft, H. (2004). Mechanisms for the acquisition of habitual bipedality: are there biomechanical reasons for the acquisition of upright bipedal posture? Journal of Anatomy,204(5), 363-384. doi:10.1111/j.0021-8782.2004.00303.x

Sockol, M. D., Raichlen, D. A., & Pontzer, H. (2007). Chimpanzee locomotor energetics and the origin of human bipedalismProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,104(30), 12265-12269. doi:10.1073/pnas.0703267104

Stout, D., Hecht, E., Khreisheh, N., Bradley, B., & Chaminade, T. (2015). Cognitive Demands of Lower Paleolithic ToolmakingPlos One,10(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121804

Villa, P., & Roebroeks, W. (2014). Neandertal Demise: An Archaeological Analysis of the Modern Human Superiority ComplexPLoS ONE,9(4). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096424



  1. iffen says:

    Here is a link for a very good current article in The Atlantic.

    They make a pretty good case that a major distinction should be made between controlling and using natural fire and the ability to create fire at will.


    • RaceRealist says:

      Great article. Read this paper:

      Thus, our data, although they do not show evidence of constructed combustion features, as listed by Roebroek and Villa as a criterion of controlled burning (3), demonstrate a very close association between hominin occupation and the presence of fire deep inside Wonderwerk Cave during the Early Acheulean. This association strongly suggests that hominins at this site had knowledge of fire 1.0 Ma. This is the most compelling evidence to date offering some support for the cooking hypothesis of Wrangham (1).

      Berna, F., Goldberg, P., Horwitz, L. K., Brink, J., Holt, S., Bamford, M., & Chazan, M. (2012). Microstratigraphic evidence of in situ fire in the Acheulean strata of Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape province, South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,109(20). doi:10.1073/pnas.1117620109

      Herculano-Houzel also talks about this in her book The Human Advantage. I will provide quotes and studies from her book later about this. I strongly recommend you read that book. It is outstanding and changed my views on human evolution, our cognitive superiority and its causes.


  2. Pete says:

    This article is based on the findings of mostly all white people, history is written by the ones in charge, claiming the creation of others as their own there’s so much here that can be challenged and shown to have a different perspective other than that found here.
    Starting with the light bulb, in Egypt there’s a depiction of a light bulb and a electrical supply system science and technology has shown that inside the pyramids no oil residue or smoke from the fires can be found on the walls and ceiling can be found today in them.
    Next meat when you cook it you actually kill off the proteins in the meat there’s something I really like for you to think about it will put in question the real reason behind the revolutionary war, did these men break from England because of taxes or slavery.
    During the reign of King George, after his marriage, he called for the end of slavery in the British Imperial impire, which ment in America aswell, knowing that the lost of slavery ment no more unpaid workers which also includes lower profit from their goods, why dress up like native American Indians during what is known as the Boston tea party, if you know the history of England than you know that the new wife of King George, was half black known as the Black Queen, sorry ( M M ) not the first that blood line can be found today in the royal family.
    What happened to history during the dark ages we know more about Egypt than the dark ages did they stop recording history during this period of time.
    When you look at history not through the eyes of America but from those other countries you find that there is a large presence of African influence in each of them a time when black people ruled the world Egypt Rome Greece Germany Spain France and more that fell under the empires they ruled.
    You say that the Moors weren’t black you can see the truth about that in Mexico and Spain the story of Othello is about the love between a moor ( black man ) and a Spanish woman or did you read that you can’t depend on American history to give you a complete truth in many white countries you can find that they had Black Rulers at some point in history, you can also find a Black virgin Mary and a Black baby Jesus and they don’t have any problems with it but American history books want tell you that.
    The Pope had a picture of Christ painted using his nephew true history you question why I bring this up tell you about the world, we’ll the contribution of all the races of people who are not on the front pages of history need to be known like the studies of the world can’t be complete without all the information equally important added to the studies.
    Health problems today, they can be traced back to the foods we eat the saying you are what you eat is true, the foods that we eat has been grown with growth hormone in the animals and the vegetables chemical engineering to get hybrid crops chemical fertilizer which if you look at the children today they grow faster than before and physically mature girls look like adult women 14 year old girls look like 20 year old women boys look like adult males and the same chemicals causes many of the health problems we have today we did this to ourselves for one simple reason money, everything had to grow faster and larger too feed a growing populist but some farmers and livestock owners are going back to a more natural way to go.


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