(ORDO NEWS) — According to a study of the diet of our Pleistocene ancestors, Paleolithic cuisine was anything but lean and green.
For a good 2 million years, Homo sapiens and their ancestors eschewed lettuce and ate mostly meat, putting them at the top of the food chain.
Agree, this is a little like a balanced diet of berries, grains and steaks, which we imagine when we think of “paleo” food.
But according to a study by anthropologists from Tel Aviv University in Israel and Minho University in Portugal, modern hunter-gatherers have given us the wrong idea of what we once ate.
“However, this comparison is useless because 2 million years ago, hunter-gatherer communities could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals, while today’s hunter-gatherers do not have access to such an abundance,” said researcher Miki Ben-Dor of Israeli Tel Aviv University.
A review of hundreds of previous studies from modern human anatomy and physiology to measurements of isotopes in the bones and teeth of ancient people suggests that, roughly 12,000 years ago, we were mostly top predators.
Reconstructing the food list of hominins that lived as early as 2.5 million years ago is complicated by the fact that plant remains are not preserved as easily as animal bones, teeth, and shells.
Other studies have used chemical analysis of bones and tooth enamel to find local examples of diets rich in plant material. But extrapolating this to humanity as a whole is not easy.
We can find plenty of evidence of game hunting in the fossil record, but to determine what we have collected, anthropologists have traditionally turned to modern ethnography on the assumption that little has changed.
According to Ben-Dor and his colleagues, this is a huge mistake.
“The whole ecosystem has changed and the conditions cannot be compared,” he said.
The diet of ancient people
The Pleistocene era was a defining time in the history of the Earth for us humans. By its end, we were marching to the far corners of the globe, outliving every other hominin on our branch of the family tree.
During the last great ice age, much of present-day Europe and North America were regularly buried under thick glaciers.
With so much water frozen in the form of ice, ecosystems around the world were very different from what we see today. Large beasts roamed the landscape, including mammoths, mastodons, and giant sloths, in far greater numbers than we see today.
Of course, it’s no secret that Homo sapiens used their ingenuity and uncanny stamina to hunt down those huge meal vouchers. But figuring out the frequency with which they preyed on these herbivores was not so easy.
Instead of relying solely on the fossil record or making superficial comparisons with pre-agricultural cultures, researchers turned to the evidence in our own bodies and compared it to our closest relatives.
For example, compared to other primates, our body requires more energy per unit of body weight. Especially when it comes to our energy-intensive brain.
Our social time, for example when it comes to raising children, also limits the amount of time we can spend looking for food.
We have more fat stores, and we can use them by quickly converting fats into ketones when the need arises.
Unlike other omnivores, which have few fat cells, but they are large, ours are small and numerous, like a predator.
Our digestive system is also suspiciously similar to that of animals higher up the food chain. Extraordinarily strong stomach acid is just what we might need to break down proteins and kill the bad bacteria you’d expect to find in a week-old mammoth chop.
Even our genomes indicate a greater dependence on a meat-rich diet than a sugar-rich diet.
All of this suggests that the trophic level of our genus that is, the position of Homo in the food web became extremely carnivorous for us and our cousins Homo erectus about 2.5 million years ago and remained so until the Upper Paleolithic about 11,700 years ago. when we gradually switched to an almost omnivorous diet.
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