Fri 27 Jul, 2012 10:54 am
Gut Check: Should You Embrace Our (Mostly) Vegetarian Past?
July 26, 2012
by Barbara J King - NPR
We humans evolved to eat meat. How many times have you read or heard some version of this statement?
Even when the evolutionary importance of plant foods to the human diet is acknowledged, assertions about the naturalness of meat-eating retain immense power over conversations about diet and health in our society (see examples here, here and here).
Now a Scientific American blog post, "Human ancestors were nearly all vegetarians," offers a different origins story.
In the post, biologist and science writer Rob Dunn suggests that when healthy eating is calibrated to the past, it's too often to a relatively recent period of time. More helpful, he believes, would be to "understand the diet of our ancestors during the time when the main features of our guts, and their magical abilities to turn food into life, evolved." This means looking back at monkeys and apes of the past, our primate relatives who, Dunn says, ate a great deal of fruits, leaves, nuts and vegetables, with the occasional protein snack (insects or small animals) thrown in.
In other words, with a tweak of the evolutionary time scale, a primate past comes into focus that is essentially vegetarian.
A few responses spring to mind right off. Isn't it misleading to talk about monkeys and apes as our ancestors? Not the way Dunn means. He knows we share common ancestors with today's monkeys and apes — indeed, it's those ancestors he's talking about.
Next, what about chimpanzee hunting? Males chimpanzees famously band together to bring down and eat colobus monkeys and other prey, and presumably have been doing so for millions of years. Chimpanzees are exceptional, though, and Dunn notes that their diet is, by mass, only 3 percent meat.
Most pressingly, how come the ancestral monkey-and-ape diet doesn't pale in significance compared to the more recent Homo ancestral diet, which did include meat from hunting or scavenging?
The conservative nature of the human gut across millions of years is the critical point for Dunn. Compared to other primates, he says, we modern humans have unique hands and unique brains, but even though our Homo forebears ate meat, our guts are pretty much primate-average, not adapted for a meat diet.
I noticed that Dunn doesn't much discuss teeth, but dental analysis suggests our Homo ancestors were able to eat a broad spectrum of foods, so he'd be right to say that our dentition isn't adapted for a meat diet either.
"Plants were our paleo diet for most of the last thirty million years," Dunn concludes.
So what's the take-home message here? It's not, I think, that we're meant to be vegetarian (nor does Dunn claim this). Rather, it's that ancestral diets don't aid us in making food choices today, any more than our ancestors' mating patterns help us in establishing healthy partnerships and families.
Last week, two friends remarked that I'm a pescetarian — a term I hadn't known, meaning someone who eats vegetarian foods plus fish. That diet works for me, taking into account my health needs, animal-welfare needs and environmental issues combined.
I don't know if there's a good pescetarian evolutionary model to be found. But then again, I don't need one.
Latest I’ve heard, you should avoid meat, fruit, vegetables
....and fish too if you can’t verify its mercury content
seems that orensically time hasnt preserved much of the vegatable content of the ancient diets but it has preserved the evidence that shows we did eat meat. Even at olduvai, some of te earliest campfires with evidence of bones that were butchered, or middens of bones that were smashed to mine the marrow.
Obviously our paleoancestors were eating the meat.
Im sure we ate [lants and fruits but we see little evidence in scat or bone. Evidence is consistant all the way from the earliest "Chellean" times (an archaic hominim stage terminology based upon hand axe
structure) to the neolihthic"Magdalenean" time period, hnd axes were made and used to hunt and points were made for spers and lances. ANcient megafaunal remains are found all over Europe and Africa and Asia from all the cultures, and these reamains usually sport scratch marks and evidence of butchery by our early relatives.
We ate plant material but I dont think we have evidence that refutes that we were omnivores(Sorta like today). Things like veganism are a relatively new phenom
I always thought of early humans as foraging scavengers, eating anything from berries and roots to animals they killed or just found freshly dead.
lotta road-kill in our ancient diets