The barbecue season is in full swing and it's all looking very primitive
Ah, the heady scents of high summer in Britain. The roses in full bloom. Ambre Solaire, candy floss and wet sand. Damp grass. And, seemingly more pervasive than ever this year, the mouth-watering aroma of grilled meat, wrapped in a pall of eye-watering, throat-grabbing fumes.

Those who love barbecues may like to know that their burning passion has a sound basis in man's prehistory. Earlier this year, the American biologist Craig Stanford declared in his book The Hunting Apes that the evolutionary root of human intelligence was meat: not for its nutritional value but because of the role it played in prehistoric social life.

It wasn't hunting that boosted intelligence - any number of four-legged dullards could manage that - but what happened next in the rituals which took place as the meat was shared.

"Part of the social fabric of the community is revealed," writes Stanford, "in the dominance displays, the tolerated theft, and the bartered meat for sexual access." Clearly this is a man who has attended barbecues. As he says: "The end of the hunt is often only the beginning of a whole other arena of social interaction."

How true, particularly when the hunt has been no more arduous than a round-trip to Sainsbury's, the kill pre-slaughtered, pre-trimmed and pre- marinaded in a series of Styrofoam boxes.

Even when we have feasted on sardinhas grilled in Portuguese fishing villages, our favourite barbecue food at home is likely to be chicken wings in clingfilm. Vegetarianism? No thanks. Meat may be murder, but have you tried barbecuing a nut cutlet?

And then, of course, there are the ritual libations: "robust" reds from Chile or Australia - barbecue heaven - and large quantities of lager, all brought clinking home in cardboard boxes and plastic carriers.

These days, with barbecues popular and leisure time limited, culinary short cuts are routine. The object is to move quickly to the main event, that "arena of social interaction", starting with the usual comical attempts to set light to a pile of pre-burnt wood.

After that it's pure primitivism. We have all seen dominance displays: "90K and a car! And luncheon vouchers!"; "Have you seen my camcorder? It's Firewire compatible"; "I've been a member for years".

Certainly there is tolerated theft: "Isn't that my glass? Oh, well, go on ... " And who has not observed, most dangerously, the bartered meat for sexual access: "I say, Deirdre, you're looking particularly, er ... Breast or thigh?"

There are those who think that this stuff owes more to The Flintstones than it does to science. Stanford arrived at his ideas by comparing chimp groups and modern hunter-gatherer societies: he admits there is no archaeological evidence for his theories.

Robin Dunbar is professor in evolutionary psychology at Liverpool University. This science takes as its starting point the idea that man's brain is still that of a hunter-gatherer. But he says that musings about man's - and it is always man's - enthusiasm for cooking meat over a fire are "mostly cobblers".

"I think my considered view would be that, given that the entire traditional world (including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and small-scale horticultur- alists) cooks on open fires and that it is all done by the women, I'd say the penchant Western men show for standing over the barbie has more to do with local cultural factors than any deep-seated evolutionarily driven predisposition to macerate bison."

This is a fair point. If the male need to cook meat in the open air is so deep-seated, why have we only recently started doing it? The word "barbecue" comes from the Arawak inhabitants of Guyana, via Spanish and French, and was first used in English by the pirate and travel writer William Dampier in his 1697 Voyage Round the World.

He described how the Indians would build a "borbecu", a rough framework of wood about 3ft off the ground, and then go to sleep on it. But they used the same bit of joinery for smoking and curing meat. Something about this process, which usually featured a whole animal, seems to have excited the fevered imaginations of Westerners, especially those at home, writing up their memoirs. Feminists will relish the fact that it was Aphra Behn, the first woman professional writer, who first associated the wooden frame with cannibalism: "Let's barbicu this fat rogue," a character suggests in The Widow Ranter, a play of 1690.

That thought is never far below the surface: perhaps the most controversial television commercial of 1998 was for a pounds 100 barbecue offered by an Australian chain. It showed a woman with a chicken's body being lightly charcoal- grilled. She begs her husband for mercy, but he shuts the lid and carries on cooking. "Need a barbecue?" asks the voice-over.

But for most of its history, since the mid-18th century, the barbecue has been not a private obsession but a social ritual: the open-air roasting of a whole animal for the benefit for an entire village or other social group.

We have largely lost that. Since the 1930s in America, and the 1960s here, a barbecue has been a toy for the nuclear family: something you build in your own garden, usually with little regard for aesthetics, or buy flat-packed from a DIY warehouse. Then you invite your friends and family and generously let your neighbours smell the burning fat and the wood smoke.

If only it were wood smoke. No one who cares about eating - and there are people (women) who will tell you that food matters at a barbecue - would use anything but charcoal. You set it alight, it burns a little, and then it dies down to produce intense heat and a modest aroma of burnt wood. It's almost pleasant.

But first you have to make it burn, and here modern man, whether captain of industry or humble foot-soldier, is at a loss. All sorts of temptations arise. Whole industries have arisen to ease the process of igniting that blackened wood: chemical-drenched firelighters, electrical devices, blowlamps and that curious product "barbecue fuel", increasingly name- checked in reports of gruesome murders and the disposal of bodies.

Of course, you can opt out altogether. The smell drifting over suburban back gardens this summer is not cooking meat, nor burning wood. It's burnt butane. Cowards! Where's the sense of adventure, either for hosts or guests?

True, there's still food poisoning to think about, and carcinogenic benzpyrene, an important component of the thick black crust on your chicken drumstick.

And then there's violence. Any reader of local newspapers will have noticed just how many violent incidents every year take place at or after barbecues, with that powerful combination of heat, flirtatiousness, fast-flowing drink and slow-coming food. The caveman in us all is not always such a welcome arrival.