Humans have more brain neurons than any other primate — about 86 billion, on average, compared with about 33 billion neurons in gorillas and 28 billion in chimpanzees. While these extra neurons endow us with many benefits, they come at a price — our brains consume 20 percent of our body’s energy when resting, compared with 9 percent in other primates. So a long-standing riddle has been where did our ancestors get that extra energy to expand their minds as they evolved from animals with brains and bodies the size of chimpanzees?
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That’s because humans would have to spend more than 9 hours a day eating to get enough energy from unprocessed raw food alone to support our large brains, according to a new study that calculates the energetic costs of growing a bigger brain or body in primates. But our ancestors managed to get enough energy to grow brains that have three times as many neurons as those in apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. How did they do it? They got cooking, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain,” says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil who is co-author of the report. “We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking.”
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