(ORDO NEWS) — Paleolithic cuisine was anything but lean and green, according to a 2021 study on the diet of our Pleistocene ancestors. For 2 million years, Homo sapiens and their ancestors eschewed lettuce and ate meat, placing them at the top of the food chain.
It’s not quite the balanced diet of berries, grains, and steaks that we imagine when we think of “paleo” nutrition.
But according to anthropologists at Tel Aviv University in Israel and Miño 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 societies could hunt and consume elephants and other large animals, while today’s hunter-gatherers do not have access to such bounty,” said Tel-Dor’s Miki Ben-Dor. Aviv University Israel in April last year.
An analysis of hundreds of previous studies on everything from the anatomy and physiology of modern humans to the measurement of isotopes in the bones and teeth of ancient people suggests that, approximately 12,000 years ago, we were primarily predators.
Reconstructing the food list of hominids 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 plant-rich diets. But extrapolating this to humanity as a whole is not easy.
We can find a lot of fossil evidence of game hunting, but to determine what we have collected, anthropologists traditionally turn to contemporary 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 conditions cannot be compared,” says Ben-Dor.
The Pleistocene epoch was a defining time in the history of the Earth for us humans. By the end of it, we were moving into the far corners of the globe, outliving every other hominin on our branch of the family tree.”
During the last great ice age, most of what is now Europe and North America was regularly buried under glaciers.
Because so much water was trapped in ice, ecosystems around the world were vastly different from what we see today. Large beasts roamed the landscape, including mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths – in much greater numbers than we see today.
Of course, it’s no secret that Homo sapiens used their resourcefulness and incredible stamina to hunt these massive animals. But the frequency with which they hunted these herbivores is not so easy to figure out.
Instead of relying solely on fossils or making loose comparisons with pre-agricultural cultures, researchers turned to the evidence in our own bodies and compared it to our closest cousins.
“We decided to use other methods to reconstruct the diet of Stone Age people: to study the memory preserved in our own bodies, our metabolism, genetics and physical constitution,” says Ben-Dor.
“Human behavior changes quickly, but evolution is slow. The body remembers.”
For example, compared to other primates, our body requires more energy per unit of body weight. Especially when it comes to our energy hungry brain. Our social time, such as parenting, 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, whose fat cells are few but large, ours are small and numerous, like those of a predator.
Our digestive systems are also suspiciously similar to those of animals higher up the food chain. The extraordinarily strong acid in the stomach is just what we need to break down proteins and destroy harmful bacteria that one would find on a week-long mammoth chop.
Even our genomes indicate that we rely more on a meat-rich diet than one rich in sugar.
“For example, geneticists concluded that sections of the human genome were closed to allow for a high-fat diet, while sections of the chimpanzee’s genome were opened to allow for a diet rich in sugar,” says Ben-Dor.
The team’s reasoning is extensive, covering evidence of tool use, evidence of trace elements and nitrogen isotopes in Paleolithic remains, and tooth wear.
All of this suggests that the trophic level of our genus – Homo’s position in the food web – became very 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. .
From here, studies of modern hunter-gatherer communities become a little more useful, as declining large animal populations and fragmentation of crops around the world led to increased plant consumption, culminating in the Neolithic revolution in farming and agriculture.
All this does not mean that we should eat more meat. Our evolutionary past is not a guide to human health, and as the researchers emphasize, our world is no longer what it used to be.
But knowing where our ancestors occupied the food web goes a long way in understanding everything from our own health and physiology to our impact on the environment in times past.
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