Q Rev Biol. 2015 Sep;90(3):251-68. doi: 10.1086/682587.


ABSTRACT We propose that plant foods containing high quantities of starch were essential for the evolution of the human phenotype during the Pleistocene. Although previous studies have highlighted a stone tool-mediated shift from primarily plant-based to primarily meat-based diets as critical in the development of the brain and other human traits, we argue that digestible carbohydrates were also necessary to accommodate the increased metabolic demands of a growing brain. Furthermore, we acknowledge the adaptive role cooking played in improving the digestibility and palatability of key carbohydrates. We provide evidence that cooked starch, a source of preformed glucose, greatly increased energy availability to human tissues with high glucose demands, such as the brain, red blood cells, and the developing fetus. We also highlight the auxiliary role copy number variation in the salivary amylase genes may have played in increasing the importance of starch in human evolution following the origins of cooking. Salivary amylases are largely ineffective on raw crystalline starch, but cooking substantially increases both their energy-yielding potential and glycemia. Although uncertainties remain regarding the antiquity of cooking and the origins of salivary amylase gene copy number variation, the hypothesis we present makes a testable prediction that these events are correlated.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amylases / genetics
  • Amylases / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cooking
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Diet, Paleolithic*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / metabolism*
  • Digestion
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Gene Dosage
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic
  • Humans
  • Nutritional Status
  • Organ Size
  • Saliva / enzymology*
  • Starch / administration & dosage
  • Starch / metabolism*


  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Starch
  • Amylases