Were Our Ancestors Predominantly Vegetarian?
Re-Thinking the “Cave Man Diet” (Paleo)
Whether you subscribe to the theory of evolution, or creationism, a bit of both, or anything else, is irrelevant to this article. This article does not go into these complexities as that is an entirely different subject, with lots of information, examination and factors to consider.
It’s no secret that human beings do not require meat to survive and live a healthy lifestyle. In fact, large amounts of research now suggest that a vegetarian diet is actually a healthier option as opposed to eating meat, or what is commonly referred to as the “Paleo Diet.”
Whether you believe this or not, you do not need meat to live a healthy lifestyle and get all of the nutrients you need.
The general gist of the Paleo Diet, also known as the “caveman diet,” the “Stone Age diet” or the “hunter-Gatherer diet” is based on the idea that if our ancestors who lived in the Palaeolithic era -a period lasting approximately 2.5 million years that ended about 10,000 years ago -ate it, then we should be doing the same. What advocates of this diet -and those who often point toward our ancestors as justification for eating meat -fail to realize is that scientists and researchers have not been able to pinpoint with one hundred per cent certainty what our ancestors really ate, and how often they ate it.
The belief that our ancestors exclusively consumed meat is completely false, and a great example of how many can believe a theory, or have a belief system and accept it as absolute fact when there is evidence to the contrary. The majority of the food eaten by primates is plant-based, not an animal, and there is research suggesting that it’s been that way for a long time. Our ancestors were clearly not the meat-eating caveman that they are so often portrayed to be, and even if they did eat meat, that doesn’t mean that we are genetically wired to do the same:
“It’s difficult to comment on ‘the best diet’ for modern humans because there have been and are so many different yet successful diets in our species. Because some hunter-gatherer society obtained most of their dietary energy from wild animal fat and protein does not imply that this is the ideal diet for modern humans, nor does it imply that modern humans have genetic adaptations to such diets.” – Katherine Milton, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley
Today, there are a number of papers that’ve been published -in peer-reviewed scientific journals -that have analyzed the diets of a variety of ancient hominin species by looking at their fossilized teeth. These findings have shown that human ancestors ate far more plant material than what was previously suspected.
One study, for example, analyzed the diet of Neanderthals (who are closely related to human beings), a species that disappeared sometime between 20,000 and 24,000 years ago. Up until a few years ago, it was believed that their diet consisted predominantly of meat, but this all changed when a large amount (and growing) body of evidence emerged suggesting that their diet also included a variety of plants. The researchers also offered evidence that these plants were also used for medicinal purposes.
Another team of researchers published a study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology which stated:
“We are suggesting that animal proteins would be less important overall and that’s particularly true for interpretations of Neolithic farmers. What that would mean is that they are having more of a balance of animal and plant protein in their diet, suggestive of a mixed existence strategy.”
A Very Brief Dietary History of Human Ancestors & Relatives
“For a long time, primates stuck by the old restaurants – leaves and fruits – and by 3.5 million years ago, they started exploring new diet possibilities – tropical grasses and sedges – that grazing animals discovered a long time before, about 10 million years ago” – University of Utah geochemist Thure Cerling
Since Cerling has published some of the most recent work in this field, I thought it would be a good idea to go with his very brief historical account of the history of our ancestral diet:
Previous research showed that 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia, early human relative Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi”) ate mostly C3 leaves and fruits.
– About 4.2 million to 4 million years ago on the Kenyan side of the Turkana Basin, one of Cerling’s new studies shows that human ancestor Australopithecus anamensis ate at least 90 percent leaves and fruits – the same diet as modern chimps.
– By 3.4 million years ago in northeast Ethiopia’s Awash Basin, according to Wynn’s study, Australopithecus afarensis were eating significant amounts of C4 grasses and sedges: 22 percent on average, but with a wide range among individuals of anywhere from 0 percent to 69 per cent grasses and sedges. The species also ate some succulent plants. Wynn says that switch “documents a transformational stage in our ecological history.” Many scientists previously believed A. afarensis had an ape-like C3 diet. It remains a mystery why A. afarensis expanded its menu to C4 grasses when its likely ancestor, A. anamensis, did not, although both inhabited savanna habitats.
– 3.4 million years ago in Turkana, human relative Kenyanthropus platyops had switched to a highly varied diet of both C3 trees and shrubs, and C4 grasses and sedges. The average was 40 per cent grasses and sedges, but individuals varied widely, eating anywhere from 5 per cent to 65 per cent.
– About 2.7 million to 2.1 million years ago in southern Africa, hominins Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus ate tree and shrub foods, but also ate grasses and sedges and perhaps grazing animals. An africanus averaged 50 per cent C4 grass-sedge-based foods, but individuals ranged from 0 to 80 per cent. P. robustus averaged 30 per cent grasses-sedges but ranged from 20 per cent to 50 per cent.
– By 2 million to 1.7 million years ago in Turkana, early humans, Homo, ate a 35 per cent grass-and-sedge diet – some possibly from meat of grazing animals –while another hominin, Paranthropus boisei, was eating 75 per cent grass –more than any hominin, according to a 2011 study by Cerling. Paranthropus likely was vegetarian. Homo had a mixed diet that likely included meat or insects that had eaten grasses. A drier climate may have made Homo and Paranthropus more reliant on C4 grasses.
– By 1.4 million years ago in Turkana, Homo had increased the proportion of grass-based food to 55 per cent.
– Some 10,000 years ago in Turkana, Homo sapiens’ teeth reveal a diet split 50-50 between C3 trees and shrubs and C4 plants and likely meat –almost identical to the ratio in modern North Americans.
Modern Day Food Industry
Again, it’s clear when we examine the diet of those who roamed the Earth before us, that a large portion of their diet was vegetarian, and as outlined, possibly one hundred per cent vegetarian for some individuals. One thing is for certain, it was not all predominately meat.
So ask yourself, when did the notion of the “caveman” diet become such a backbone for people to use as justification for eating meat? Why do so many people believe that our ancestors ate so much meat and that it’s all they ate?
The average North American diet today is one that involves ingesting what seems to be abnormal amounts of meat, on a daily basis. Even if our ancestors did consume meat, they did not consume it on a daily basis. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that those who lived in the “hunter-gatherer” period went very long periods without eating at all.
This – as pointed out by Mark Mattson, a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University – is precisely why our bodies have evolved to go long periods of time without food, and why intermittent fasting is now a healthy practice with a tremendous amount of health benefits. As for the modern-day meat industry, billions of animals are killed every year for food consumption alone. They are being raised to be slaughtered, injected with various chemicals, mistreated and more.
They are also roaming in pesticides and fed GMO feed (which studies have shown to be detrimental to human and animal health, something we’ve written about in-depth and provided evidence for on our website). Our modern-day food industry is one that is full of harmful substances, chemicals and other artificial ingredients that are making many wonders how we can even call it “food” anymore.
We still have a long way to go and lots of work to do if we want to become a healthy species again, something we are far from achieving.